Saturday, April 24, 2010

The Minnesota Dead Sea Scrolls Exhibit

scrolls-300x250 I had the opportunity a couple of weeks ago to see the Dead Sea Scrolls exhibit at the Science Museum of Minnesota in St. Paul. Last week, I viewed the Dead Sea Scrolls and the Bible exhibit at the Milwaukee Public Museum. Counting my trip to the San Diego exhibit in 2007, I have now had the “once-in-a-lifetime” opportunity to see the scrolls three times. The Minnesota exhibit’s advertising urges you to:
Experience a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to witness one of the greatest archaeological finds of the 20th century—the Dead Sea Scrolls, which include the earliest known Biblical writings.
I will comment on the Milwaukee exhibit in a separate post. For a much more thorough review than I intend to do, see John’s post here.

If you are in the Twin Cities any time between now and October 24th, I highly recommend you take a few hours to go see the exhibit at the Science Museum. Of the three exhibits I’ve seen, the scope of the MN exhibit is the most comprehensive in terms of background information related to the Scrolls and the site of Qumran. I’m more familiar than the average person with the various theories and debates related to the DSS, and the main thing that impressed me about the MN exhibit was how it laid out all the options related to the identity of the sect and the possible uses of the site without privileging any particular angle. The exhibit does not play up a simplistic either/or dichotomy of Jerusalem origins vs. Qumran Essene origin that might have been assumed from some of the media coverage. While past exhibits have mentioned the existence of multiple theories, this is the only one I’ve seen that incorporates the information on multiple theories throughout the exhibit and doesn’t “spin” the evidence in favor of any particular perspective. (Concerning the San Diego exhibit, Bob Cargill pointed out that his documentary at the exhibit laid out the options. While that may be so, I saw the exhibit but not the movie and the exhibit itself was very much oriented toward the “Standard Hypothesis” of Qumran Essene origin for the scrolls.)

Now I have a theory for why museums and other popular presentations of controversial issues like this present one theory as stronger and more certain than it really is. People like certainty and proof (just ask Scott). They’re uncomfortable with uncertainty, ambiguity, and tension between competing interpretations. They also don’t like to think for themselves. So while multiple theories and raw data might be presented, they’re usually told which one is the “right” answer. Not so at the MN exhibit. All the options are laid out and you’re left to decide for yourself who makes a stronger case. (In case you want someone to tell you what to think: The scrolls were not composed at Qumran by a monk-like group of Essenes. Pick any other theory and it makes more sense of the data.)

The flow of the exhibit works well and the free audio tour was a definite plus. (The Milwaukee exhibit charges an extra $6 for an audio tour which I did not purchase.) Most of your time at the exhibit won’t be spent in the Scrolls room. There are only 5 scrolls on display at a time at the Science Museum. But the Scrolls display is really just the climax to a very comprehensive exhibit of artifacts from Second Temple Judaism and the archaeology of the Dead Sea region. One of my favorite parts of the exhibit was on how Israel is working now to preserve the scroll fragments, contrasting current methods of preservation with the “what-were-they-thinking” techniques from the 1950s (involving scotch tape, plate glass, and cigarettes – you can see the plate glass and the tape still in use on the DSS fragments displayed in Milwaukee).

As an added bonus, 28 pages of the Saint John’s Bible are on display in an additional exhibit at the end of the DSS exhibit. The Saint John’s Bible is a hand-written illuminated Bible, the first of its kind since the invention of the printing press. Scribal culture is getting a mini-revival of sorts! The artwork and script is amazing and well worth seeing.

If you get the opportunity, the Dead Sea Scrolls exhibit at the Science Museum of Minnesota is well worth the trip. It’s a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity!

Thursday, April 15, 2010

Does Psa 33 Allude to Gen 1?

Last weekend at the Upper Midwest Regional SBL meeting I heard a Hebrew Bible paper on Wisdom Theology in the Creation Psalms. At several points, the presenter indicated that he felt the psalmist had been aware of the creation accounts of both P and J. It was clear that he was still developing an understanding of how one would demonstrate such a textual connection that was more than a “feeling.” During the Q&A, I asked for specific examples he’d found supporting his assertion, but he answered mostly about thematic connections and the idea of creation by speech. I hate to be the one to burst his bubble, but after examining the shared locutions between Psa 33 and Gen 1, I have to conclude that it is very unlikely that the psalmist knew of or used the Priestly Creation Account in Gen 1-2:4a. The idea of creating by speech is known from ANE mythology (e.g., the deity Ptah creates by naming things in one Egyptian account). Beyond that, the only thematic connection is that both are creation texts.

So, I started thinking about what would constitute a clear allusion to Genesis 1. The shared locution should be distinct and recognizable in order to function as an allusion. I found 10 lexical items in Psa 33 that are also found in Gen 1: ארץ, שמים, רוח, עשה, צבא, מים, ים, תהום, היה, אדם.

With the exception of תהום , all occur over 350 times in the Hebrew Bible. So, do common words like “earth” (2498x), “to make” (2573x), and “to do” (3514x), constitute an allusion?

I think not.

Are there any terms that are sufficiently concentrated in Gen 1 and fairly rare overall in the Hebrew Bible to possibly support an argument for allusion? The words above come from very common vocabulary used in Gen 1.

Here are a few terms from Gen 1 that are sufficiently uncommon to serve as markers of allusion: תהו, בהו, רקיע, בדל, רמש, שרץ, מין, צלם, תנין. Most of these terms occur 20x or less in the Hebrew Bible. The verb בדל “to divide” (42x) and the noun מין “type, kind” (31x) are the only exceptions, but בדל occurs 5x just in Gen 1, raising its profile for allusion.

Unfortunately, none of those terms occur in Psa 33. I have yet to search whether they occur in any other creation texts in the Hebrew Bible, but that is another question that I’m interested in: Does any of the Hebrew Bible allude to Genesis 1 at all?

What else in Gen 1 is sufficiently distinct to be considered a clear allusion to that creation account in a psalm or other Hebrew text?

Thursday, April 8, 2010

Sad News: The Passing of Hanan Eshel

Hanan Eshel, known best to me as author of The Dead Sea Scrolls and the Hasmonean State, has passed away today.

His book was a very good synthesis attempting to place the DSS in a wider historical context. His scholarship on Second Temple Judaism was top notch. He will be missed.

My condolences to his family and friends.

The news of his passing was reported here, among other places.

Saturday, April 3, 2010

Introducing Mekhilta de-Rabbi Ishmael

Continuing my occasional journey through rabbinic literature, I want to introduce readers to my all-time favorite collection of midrash – Mekhilta de-Rabbi Ishmael (hereafter “Mekhilta” though there is another lesser known Mekhilta de-R. Simeon ben Yoḥai). Admittedly, my experience with rabbinic literature is limited, so my favoritism for Mekhilta might be based merely on familiarity. It is also possible that my preference is colored by Boyarin's use of Mekhilta for his case studies in Intertextuality and the Reading of Midrash, the book that first introduced me to reading rabbinic interpretation.

Mekhilta is one of the halakhic midrashim. The name itself “Mekhilta” is an Aramaic word meaning “rule” or “norm.” It is used in the Talmud to designate not the commentary specifically but general notes on halakhic exegesis and the rules guiding that exegesis (ITM, 252). This is common in rabbinics - “midrash” can refer to a book like Mekhilta or simply to an exegetical method; “mishnah” can refer to the Mishnah or to a particular law/section in the Mishnah. The Mekhilta is named after R. Ishmael, the first authority named in Pisḥa 2. The exegesis covers Exodus 12:1-23:19; 31:12-17; and 35:1-3 (ibid.). As with much rabbinic literature, pinning down a precise date of composition is difficult. It is one of the tannaitic midrashim, containing early rabbinic traditions and exegesis. It was probably redacted sometime in the late 3rd century or 4th century C.E. in Palestine.

The Hebrew text below is from Lauterbach's edition. The English translation is mine.

Pisḥa 1, Parashah 1, lines 1-10.

ויאמר יי אל משה ואל אהרן בארץ מצרים לאמר שומע אני שהיה הדיבור למשה ולאהרן כשהוא אומר ויהי ביום דבר יי אל משה בארץ מצרים למשה היה הדיבור ולא היה הדיבור לאהרן אם כן מה תלמוד לומר אל משה ואל אהרן אלא מלמד שכשם שהיה משה כלול לדברות כך היה אהרן כלול לדברות ומפני מה לא נדבר עמו מפני כבודו של משה נמצאת ממעט את אהרן מכל הדברות שבתורה חוץ משלשה מקומות מפני שאי איפשר׃
“And the Lord said to Moses and Aaron in the land of Egypt, saying” (Exod. 12:1). I could understand that the divine revelation (הדיבור; Jastrow, 295) was for Moses and for Aaron. But when it says, “And it came to pass on the day when the Lord spoke to Moses in the land of Egypt” (Exod. 6:28), the divine revelation was directed to Moses and not to Aaron. If thus, what is being taught by saying “to Moses and to Aaron”? It only teaches that just as Moses was included for the divine words, so Aaron was included for the divine words. So because of that, why does he not converse with him? On account of the honor due Moses. You will find Consequently, [Scripture] excludes Aaron from all the divine revelations in the Torah except for three places where it is impossible.
The rabbis here are noticing that sometimes the biblical text depicts God speaking only to Moses and other times mentions Moses and Aaron together. The discussion continues on to the issue of whether word order signifies priority and importance, but we'll get there next. The observation here is that Moses is deserving of more honor and respect which is why God spoke to him first. I'm unsure of the nuance where I've translated “You will find Aaron excluded”. I think Lauterbach has a more accurate assessment of the context when he translates “Aaron was not directly addressed” (p. 1), intimating that while Aaron was there and included, he was never directly addressed except three times. In these three cases, it's impossible to find anyone except Aaron as the direct addressee: Lev. 10:8, Num. 18:1, and Num. 18:8. Next up, Mekhilta on word order and equality, continuing on in parashah 1.

Boyarin, D. Intertextuality and the Reading of Midrash. Indiana University Press, 1990.
Jastrow, M. Dictionary of the Targumim, the Talmud Babli and Yerushalmi, and the Midrashic Literature. Putnam, 1903.
Lauterbach. J.Z. Mekilta de-Rabbi Ishmael: a critical edition on the basis of the manuscripts and early editions with an English translation, introduction and notes. JPS, 1961 [1933].
Strack. H. and G. Stemberger. Introduction to the Talmud and Midrash. Fortress Press, 1996.

Friday, April 2, 2010

Written Hebrew & the Composition of the Bible

Too often our discussions of how and when the biblical books were composed fail to take into account the historical evidence for written language and text. That is, we rarely consider when the technology of writing was actually available for use composing the biblical texts. The tradition that Moses wrote the Pentateuch, for example, still has to explain how he could have written much of it in good 8th-7th century Judean Hebrew from his 13th century home in the wilderness. If Moses wrote the Pentateuch, what did he write the original in? Hebrew wasn’t an option then. Proto-Canaanite? Akkadian? Egyptian?

In recent years, a few books have come out dealing with this issue of scribal schools and scribal culture. The most well-known and influential to date have been David Carr’s Writing on the Tablet of the Heart (2005) and Karel van der Toorn’s Scribal Culture and the Making of the Hebrew Bible (2007).

sanders inv of Heb But the book that I think best deals with the question of how, why, and when the Israelites started writing Hebrew and how that impacts our theories of biblical composition is The Invention of Hebrew by Seth L. Sanders (2009). Perhaps the fact that Sanders provides theoretical and evidential support for some of what I’ve already long suspected about biblical Hebrew and the composition of the Hebrew Bible makes his argument land persuasively on me, but I will be very surprised if this book doesn’t have a major impact on future studies exploring the composition of particular biblical books. It is, in my opinion, a game-changer. Here is a representative quote:

By 700 B.C.E. local scripts like Hebrew have escaped the royal chancery; Israelites have used the old linear alphabet to create a literature. In the late Iron Age we find extended linear alphabetic texts in a spectrum of genres: letters from all walks of life, poetry, and ritual blessings. In the kingdoms of Israel and Judah the new writing had assumed a definitive status. Yet in the very territory and history Hebrew described, the literary silence from which it emerged had been forgotten.

The most successful product of this new writing, the Bible[,] reads as if written Hebrew had always existed, preserving no memory of its origins or what came before it. From the beginning, God had written the language that He, and Israel, spoke: Hebrew. Memory has been a major theme of recent Bible scholarship that tries to reconcile Near Eastern history with biblical literature. But the Bible was also a powerful tool for forgetting: the gap in memory between Late Bronze Age and late Iron Age culture erases a decisive moment in the history of writing in Israel, the point at which written Hebrew was invented. (p. 80)

Disclosure of Material Connection:  I have a material connection because I received a review copy (book, CD, software, etc.), or an item of nominal value that I can keep for consideration in preparing to write this content. This is not a full book review, but to be safe, I wanted to acknowledge the connection. Thanks to University of Illinois Press for sending along a copy of this book.

Bob Cargill on 'Heresy' and Biblical Criticism

Bob's thought for the day is worth repeating in part:
it is never heretical to point out the inconsistencies of the biblical text to students. ever! if the one’s faith can’t survive a few critical questions, it’s either deeply flawed or it is not worth maintaining. shielding students from textual problems does not help their faith, it only sets them up for a greater fall.
and reading in full. I agree with Bob completely. If we shield students (and believers in general) from the hard questions and interpretive problems that close study of the Bible brings to light, then we're potentially setting them up for a bigger fall and hurting our own credibility if they discover some of those difficulties on their own. I, for one, was very disappointed when I found a few professors had misrepresented critical bible scholarship in an attempt to insulate us from facing those types of questions.