Saturday, December 29, 2007

Bethlehem Brawl

I suppose that Christmas just wouldn't be Christmas without the monks at the place of Jesus' birth duking it out.
For a quarter of an hour bearded and robed priests laid into each other with fists, brooms and iron rods while the photographers who had come to take pictures of the annual cleaning ceremony recorded the whole event.


Wednesday, December 26, 2007

Qumran Excavation Report

The Israel Antiquities Authority has posted the preliminary report (pdf) of the Qumran excavations (1993-2004) by Yitzhak Magen and Yuval Peleg.  You may recall that a recent article in Biblical Archaeology Review indicated that these archaeologists conclude that Qumran was a pottery manufacturing site, not the home of the Essenes.  They state their motivation for this report in the preface:

We felt it necessary to separately publish this article due to the fact that until now, most of the discussion regarding our new theory on the nature of the site has been in newspapers--in articles not initiated by us--and has been based upon unsubstantiated evidence from certain scholars.

The report is well written and illustrated with many beautiful photographs and drawings.


Monday, December 24, 2007

Excavations of Herodian Ruins at Dhahab (Penuel/Mahanaim)

Many will probably quickly skip over this article, but those who have visited or studied the sites of Penuel and Mahanaim will be interested, though the article mentions neither possible identification.  Excavations have (finally!) begun at Tall adh-Dhahab, often identified by biblical scholars as the place where Jacob wrestled with the angel, where David fled from Absalom, and where Jeroboam built his Transjordanian capital.  But what was not known (at least to me) was the Herodian attraction to the site.  This makes perfect sense, given its history.  A professor of theology at Technische Universität Dortmund began work last year.  From their recent press release.

This year Thomas Pola, professor for theology at TU Dortmund, and his team have continued the excavations in the East Jordan Land. With their findings on the mountain Tall adh-Dhahab (West) in the Jabbok Valley the archeologists could substantiate one assumption: everything points to the fact that the building remains from the Hellenistic and Roman era, found in 2006, were part of a yet unknown monumental building of Herod the Great (73-4 BC).

This assumption is based on the floors of one of the discovered peristyle yards (yards enclosed by continuous columns) which the archeologists were able to excavate. Prof. Pola sees the parallels with the architecture of Herod’s West Jordan Alexandreion as prove that there also was a monumental building of Herod the Great on the plateau of the mountain Tall adh-Dhahab. That would mean that in addition to his reign over the West Jordan Land, the Jewish king had a security system with which he could have controlled the ancient long-distance traffic in the middle Jordan Valley and the access ways to the plateau of the East Jordan Land.

Above that, the team of Prof. Pola for the first time discovered a layer from the late Bronze Age or the Early Iron Age on a natural terrace directly underneath the plateau. The ruins of a tower from the city wall at least show three building phases. “On the level of the oldest building phase we took samples from a burnt layer. A C14-analysis carried out by Prof. Manfred Bayer (Physics at TU Dortmund) showed that the charcoal originates from the time 1300 to 1000 BC. At this location we will continue to work in 2008.”

Finally Prof. Pola’s team discovered the purpose of the monumental military facility half way up the mountain: it is a casemate wall. It is supposed to have been finished in Roman times. This is yet another argument for the identification of the mountain with the stronghold Amathous mentioned in the ancient world. The historian Josephus (37 to 100 AD) described Amathous as the biggest stronghold in the East Jordan Land.

The press release continues here.

Penuel from southeast, tb031701999
Tall adh-Dhahab West, identified by some as biblical Mahanaim and by others (including myself) as Penuel


Dead Sea Scrolls to be Re-Photographed

This story is from the Financial Times.  The best sentence is the last.

The Dead Sea scrolls, the most potent source of our knowledge of Judaism and early Christianity, are to be digitised for the internet in a project that could take up to five years. It will involve the manipulation of some 15,000 scraps of leather or papyrus, some no bigger than a speck of dust.

Project leader Simon Tanner, of the Centre for Computing in the Humanities at King's College London, said the difficulty of photographing the scrolls would be deepened by the fact that in many cases there is little contrast between the writing and the material on which it is written.

The team would be using a digital camera offering up to 20 times more resolution than a conventional model and an infra-red camera that would enable the script to be more easily read against the background.

Tanner said he had worked on more than 450 digitisation projects and the scrolls were the most technically challenging he had faced. The Israel Antiquities Authority faced complex handling and conservation issues in making the scrolls available for digitisation.

The publication of the scrolls was completed in 2001 after a period of 35 years in which they were monopolised by a group of scholars. They have been photographed only once before, in the 1950s. Now the intention is to make them available to amateurs and professionals alike, allowing people to manipulate the images of the fragments in a number of different ways.

HT: Joe Lauer

Hatshepsut Mummy Study Continues

Because the biblical dates in the Bible suggest that the Exodus occurred in the mid-15th century, some surmise that Hatshepsut might be the princess mentioned in the Bible.  In any case, she is a very important and interesting figure.  From the Associated Press:

Months after Egypt boldly announced that archaeologists had identified a mummy as the most powerful queen of her time, scientists in a museum basement are still analyzing DNA from the bald, 3,500-year-old corpse to try to back up the claim aired on TV.

Progress is slow. So far, results indicate the linen-wrapped mummy is most likely, but not conclusively, the female pharaoh Queen Hatshepsut, who ruled for 20 years in the 15th century B.C.

Running its own ancient-DNA lab is a major step forward for Egypt, which for decades has seen foreigners take most of the credit for major discoveries here.

It's time Egyptian scientists took charge, said Zahi Hawass, Egypt's antiquities chief who spearheaded the quest to find Hatshepsut and build the lab. "Egyptology, for the last 200 years, it has been led by foreigners."

The story continues here.


Netzer Lecture on Herod's Tomb

Ehud Netzer, the archaeologist who discovered Herod's tomb and excavated most of Herod's other sites throughout Israel, is lecturing (in Hebrew) this Thursday at Hebrew Union College, Jerusalem.  The details are:

Lecture: The Discovery of King Herod's Tomb at Herodium (in Hebrew) with Ehud Netzer

Location: HUC/JIR, 13 King David Street

Date: Thursday, Dec 27, 2007 at 5 PM

HT: Joe Lauer


Monday, December 17, 2007

Temple Mount Ramp Excavations to Resume

Excavations are set to resume on the ramp in the Western Wall plaza that leads to the Temple Mount.  From Arutz-7:

Archaeologists with the Israel Antiquities Authority (IAA) were told by the cabinet on Sunday to resume their excavations at the Rambam (Mughrabi) Gate leading to the Temple Mount in the Old City of Jerusalem, with all due haste.

They were also told to work with "full transparency" and in coordination with "relevant bodies" so as to complete construction of a new permanent foot bridge to the Western Wall as soon as possible. The bridge is to be used by visitors and also by police. Work being carried out to replace the current walkway, which partially collapsed in a storm in 2004, was halted in June in response to rioting by enraged Muslims who claimed the work was a plot to weaken the foundations of the Al Aqsa mosque.

The construction site is located 60 meters away from the mosque and was found by numerous Israeli and international engineers to be no threat to the structure. Nonetheless, a new plan was proposed by Jerusalem planning officials that called for a shorter bridge along the existing route, and which would require less excavating and fewer pillars. A budget of NIS 3.5 million has been allocated for the project.

In the wake of the Muslim riots, UNESCO investigators were sent by the United Nations to inspect the repair work being carried out on the broken footbridge.

The rest of the story reviews other developments related to the Temple Mount in the past year.  We covered this story before here and here.

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Sunday, December 16, 2007

Books Published in Turkey Now Available

In yesterday's Asia Minor Report, Mark Wilson has good news for those books you can buy only in Turkey:

Purchasing books published in Turkey has been difficult for scholars not living in Turkey.  However, Ahmet Boratav of Ege Yayınları has just made ordering such books easier. His web site ( is now available in English and features thousands of books, journals, and magazines. The home page features the Bookseller’s Choices as well as recent releases. Registered surface shipping is included in the price for orders placed from anywhere outside of Turkey.


Monday, December 10, 2007

BiblePlaces Newsletter

I sent out the December 2007 issue of the newsletter today.  If you thought you were subscribed but did not receive it, here are a few suggestions:

1. Check your spam box.  Despite the fact that neither I, nor the newsletter distribution company, ever practice anything but the highest ethics in regard to email, some spam filters stop the newsletter.

2. Consider whether you are subscribed at your current email address.  If you've moved in the last year and changed addresses, you can fix that easily by subscribing with your new address here.

3. Maybe you never subscribed at all.  There's an easy fix here.

Even if you do #2 or #3, you will not get today's newsletter automatically sent to you.  If you would like that, you can send me an email at tbolen81 at bibleplaces dot com [spelled out because I get and hate spam too], and I'll send you one.  But I won't be able to send it until the end of the week, as I'm busy until then.


Saturday, December 08, 2007

A Naturalist in the Judean Wilderness

This article is a bit different from the usual fare.  A conservation biologist goes for a stroll in the Wadi Qilt (near Jericho) and details his morning's observations.  Here's a taste:

As I hiked through this harsh but astonishing landscape, I tried to keep my eyes on the sky in anticipation of a potential sighting of an interesting gliding raptor, as it was the time for the fall migration. Loud trumpeting, far-reaching calls, and deep and trilling "kroo kroos" emerged out of nowhere. I tried to distinguish where the sound was coming from; however, in a magical sight, the air was suddenly filled with hundreds of cranes soaring and twirling in the sky as they were carried up by the warm air currents. Like fighter-pilot squadrons, the birds adopt arrow-like formations as they are lifted by the thermals, which will eventually guide them south towards Africa. A few minutes later, they disappeared into the horizon.

The article was originally published in This Week in Palestine and is available online at the Institute for Middle East Understanding.  You can read it all here.  You can see some of my photos of the Wadi Qilt here.

Wednesday, December 05, 2007

Palace of Queen Helena Found?

The Israel Antiquities Authority announced the discovery of the palace of Queen Helena of Adiabene today.  You can read about it in this Jerusalem Post article or in this AFP article.  The JPost article also has a great photo of the excavation area.  Here are some parts of the JPost article with my thoughts.

The site, which has been unearthed during a six-month 'salvage' excavation in the Givati parking lot just outside the Dung Gate ahead of the planned expansion of the Western Wall car park, also indicates that the ancient City of David was much larger than previously thought, said archeologist Doron Ben-Ami, who is directing the dig at the site.

If you've been in Jerusalem in the last five years, you've seen this gaping hole just south of the Dung Gate - this is the same place.  I worked with our students as volunteers in digging here back in the fall of 2003, so it's not exactly a new excavation as the article implies.

Temple Mount and City of David aerial from sw, tb010703234 
Jerusalem from southwest; excavation area circled

That the "City of David was much larger than previously thought" doesn't make any sense to me.  The City of David has always been understood to be bordered by the Kidron Valley on the east and the Central Valley on the west and neither of those have moved in the last six months.  Nobody has doubted that there was construction in this area in the 1st century A.D., especially given the Crowfoot expedition in the 1920s.

The "monumental" edifice, which was destroyed by the Romans when they demolished the Second Temple in 70 CE, was dated to the end of the Second Temple Period by pottery and stone vessels, as well as an assortment of coins from that time, Ben-Ami said.

When we were there, we were digging in the Late Roman and Byzantine periods, and I've never been part of a dig where we found more coins than this one. 

According to the director of the dig, the elaborate edifice, which is an anomaly in the landscape of the Lower City at the end of the Second Temple period - which was marked with modest buildings - was probably a palace built by Queen Helena, a wealthy Iraqi aristocrat who converted to Judaism and moved to Jerusalem with her sons.

The problem with this statement is that very little digging has been done on the crest of the City of David (as opposed to the eastern slope), and there was much destruction in later periods.  So there isn't much to compare with.  If all they have is a magnificent building, I'd say it could be Helena's and it could be someone else's.

Helena is an interesting individual.  Her tomb in Jerusalem was the second most magnificent one in the ancient world (and it's still impressive, although difficult to visit because of poor management by the French government; cf. Ant. 20.4.3).  Josephus wrote that Helena built three palaces in the Lower City (one for herself, one for her son and one for her mother-in-law; Wars 4.9.11; 5.6.1), which is (I think) the only basis for the identification of this building as hers by the archaeologist.

Though contemporary with the book of Acts, Helena is not mentioned in the New Testament.  Josephus connects her with the famine mentioned in Acts 11:28, indicating that she bought large quantities of food from Egypt to feed the people of Jerusalem (Ant. 20.2.3ff.).

The archeologists carrying out the dig have not yet found any inscription to identify the building they uncovered, but the excavation director said that there was a "high probability" that the site was indeed the 2,000-year-old palace of Queen Helena.  "We need more evidence to decide, but almost everything fits," Ben-Ami said.

This identification could well be, but there's no evidence for it given in this article.  I would think the identification would be stronger if: 1) more of the City of David had been excavated, thus excluding other sites; 2) we had more knowledge of what else was in the City of David in the 1st century; all we really know is that these palaces were here, but it's doubtful that these occupied the entire area; 3) finds from the building were of Mesopotamian origin (Adiabene was a province in northern Mesopotamia).

The well-preserved structure being uncovered in the ongoing excavation is an impressive architectural complex that includes massive foundations; walls, some of which are preserved to a height in excess of five meters and built of stones that weigh hundreds of kilograms; halls that are preserved to a height of at least two stories; a basement level that was covered with vaults; remains of polychrome frescoes, water installations and ritual baths.

This is great, but there were many impressive buildings in first century Jerusalem, so this alone is not sufficient to prove the identification.

Those interested in Jewish evangelism and conversion in the New Testament period would find Helena's story worth studying.  For a start, take a look at the articles in Anchor Bible Dictionary on Proselyte and Circumcision.

Update: The JPost has a one-minute video of the excavations with an archaeologist talking about the discovery.  HT: Joe Lauer.

Update (12/7): has a 2-minute video, and this Arutz-7 article has numerous photos which show the well-preserved walls and some of the artifacts discovered.  The story is also covered by Reuters, Haaretz, and the AP.

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Sunday, December 02, 2007

Hasmonean Hometown of Modiin

In advance of the coming Hanukkah celebration, the Jerusalem Post has an article on possible locations of Modiin and the area.  An excerpt:

At Umm el-Umdan, an Arab village close to the southern entrance of Modi'in, excavations have unearthed the remains of a Hasmonean village including a row of houses, a marketplace, a ritual bath and a synagogue. The discovery of the synagogue, the only remnant still exposed and accessible for public viewing, has led some archeologists to propose that Umm el-Umdan is the site of ancient Modi'in, the hometown of revolt leaders and priestly Hasmonean family.

They claim the synagogue is evidence of the settlement at Umm el-Umdan's importance. Yet others argue that the remains of ancient Modi'in can be found at Titura Hill, the site of a spectacular Crusader-era fortress at the edge of modern-day Modi'in. Excavations at the fortress have revealed remnants from various periods including those depicting a Hasmonean-era settlement. Proponents of the Titura Hill theory claim that the settlement's vast dimensions are a point in the site's favor as the Hasmoneans often constructed large structures to demonstrate their importance.

According to Amit Re'em, Israel Antiquities Authority archaeologist for the Modi'in district, the above assertions should be viewed with caution. "As signs declaring the names of the unearthed settlements were not discovered, any evidence that either location is more likely to be that of ancient Modi'in than any another Hasmonean village is purely circumstantial... and thus such claims are no more than speculation."

You can read the rest here.

HT: Joe Lauer

Gospel of Judas: NG Blew It

April D. DeConick says that National Geographic got it all wrong in their interpretation of the Gospel of Judas.  And, what do you know, but their strange choices created the story.  DeConick goes further than explaining the translation errors, but she also shows why scholarship should not be done this way - in a closet by a few scholars who sign non-disclosure agreements before a major press conference designed to generate boatloads of money.

Amid much publicity last year, the National Geographic Society announced that a lost 3rd-century religious text had been found, the Gospel of Judas Iscariot. The shocker: Judas didn’t betray Jesus. Instead, Jesus asked Judas, his most trusted and beloved disciple, to hand him over to be killed. Judas’s reward? Ascent to heaven and exaltation above the other disciples.

It was a great story. Unfortunately, after re-translating the society’s transcription of the Coptic text, I have found that the actual meaning is vastly different. While National Geographic’s translation supported the provocative interpretation of Judas as a hero, a more careful reading makes clear that Judas is not only no hero, he is a demon.

Several of the translation choices made by the society’s scholars fall well outside the commonly accepted practices in the field. For example, in one instance the National Geographic transcription refers to Judas as a “daimon,” which the society’s experts have translated as “spirit.” Actually, the universally accepted word for “spirit” is “pneuma ” — in Gnostic literature “daimon” is always taken to mean “demon.”

Likewise, Judas is not set apart “for” the holy generation, as the National Geographic translation says, he is separated “from” it. He does not receive the mysteries of the kingdom because “it is possible for him to go there.” He receives them because Jesus tells him that he can’t go there, and Jesus doesn’t want Judas to betray him out of ignorance. Jesus wants him informed, so that the demonic Judas can suffer all that he deserves.

Perhaps the most egregious mistake I found was a single alteration made to the original Coptic. According to the National Geographic translation, Judas’s ascent to the holy generation would be cursed. But it’s clear from the transcription that the scholars altered the Coptic original, which eliminated a negative from the original sentence. In fact, the original states that Judas will “not ascend to the holy generation.” To its credit, National Geographic has acknowledged this mistake, albeit far too late to change the public misconception.

The rest is here and it is worth reading.

UPDATE (12/8): One of the NG translators responds in a letter to the NYT.

HT: Joe Lauer

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