Monday, May 30, 2005

The Stench of Ancient Cities

A few weeks ago, I was reading a portion of Genesis Rabba (Parasha 34) with some HUC grad students, and we came across a story that begins: "Two women were coming out of Tiberias, and one said to the other: Blessed is He who brought us out of this bad air!"

The story is told to demonstrate how parochial the two women are, for Tiberias was a noted resort and famous city. But it seems likely that, for someone who lived in the country, ancient cities had a definite bad odor. In one of his letters, Seneca writes:

I expect you're keen to hear what effect it had on my health, this decision of mine to leave (Rome). No sooner had I left behind the oppressive atmosphere of the city and that reek of smoking cookers which pour out, along with a cloud of ashes, all the poisonous fumes they've accumulated in their interiors whenever they're started up, than I noticed the change in my condition at once....

Of course, the ancients had very different ideas about sanitation, cleanliness, and modesty. Readers of Josephus will remember the amount of time he devotes to the "strange" Essene toilet habits:

War 2:148-9: "Nay, on the other days they dig a small pit, a foot deep, with a paddle (which kind of hatchet is given them when they are first admitted among them); and covering themselves round with their garment, that they may not affront the divine rays of light, they ease themselves into that pit, after which they put the earth that was dug out again into the pit; and even this they do only in the more lonely places, which they choose out for this purpose; and although this easement of the body be natural, yet it is a rule with them to wash themselves after it, as if it were a defilement to them."

Josephus obviously thought it excessively modest to defecate in private (uncovered public latrines were common in his day), and excessively fastidious to wash afterwards — which sheds a certain light on the stench of ancient cities.

Interesting observations (including the quote from Seneca) and bibliography can be found here.

Friday, May 27, 2005

Quran or Koran?

OK, which is it — Koran or Quran? The New York Times vacillates, depending on which wire service they're picking up. If it's Reuters, the headline is "Guantanamo Probe Finds 5 Koran Mishandling Cases." If it's AP, the headline is "Inquiry Finds Some Quran 'Mishandling.' "

I'm not going to discuss the substance of these stories; I hope that all my readers will agree that the "mishandling" is deplorable, as well as counter-productive. But the question of popular transliteration interests me.

There seems to be an overall tendency these days to go with a stricter, more Arabically "correct" transliteration in the media. I notice muslim more often than moslem, Muhammad more often than Mohammed. The preference for quran or even qur'an over "Koran" is in line with this tendency.

Strictly speaking, a transliteration "Quran" seems at first glance linguistically correct. The root of the word is cognate to Hebrew קרא, and both roots refer to (among other things) reading or audible recitation. The qur'aan is the "reading," that which is read or recited (compare Hebrew מקרא, miqra, "that which is read," the Bible).

Nevertheless, the Arabic sound conventionally transliterated as "Q" indicates a phonemic contrast (to Arabic "K") that does not exist in English. In fact, in English, the grapheme QU always indicates the phonetic sequence /kw/, and English speakers are going to want to import that /kw/ pronunciation into the spelling "Quran," leading to the monstrosity /kwuran/ or the like.

Therefore, to better approximate the actual pronunciation of the word, I wish they would settle on the older standard spelling "Koran." In English, the Arabic /q/ and /k/ are both adequately signaled by English K. And after all, English is what we're speaking here, right? We don't refer to certain foreign capitals as Moskva, Yerushalayim, Bruxelles, or Roma. Nor should we adopt the spelling Quran for the Islamic scripture.

By the way, as far as I can tell, in German the spelling is still "Koran," and in French they prefer "Coran." In archaic English the preferred term was apparently "Alcoran," based on Arabic al-qur'aan "the Koran," occasionally leading to the solecism "the Alcoran."

Wednesday, May 25, 2005

Goodacre Becomes Blue Devil; BBC Mourns

Mark Goodacre is crossing the Big Pond to Duke University. Congratulations!

Just one crucial word of advice, Mark: Krzyewski is pronounced "Shashefsky." Practice it at home till you get it right.

Tuesday, May 24, 2005

Happy Birthday, Bob

Today is Bob Dylan's birthday.

Now that it's dust and ashes
now that it's human skin
Here's to you Bob Dylan
a poem for the laurels you win

Sincerest form of flattery
is imitation they say
I've broke my long line down
to write a song your way

Those "chains of flashing images"
that came to you at night
were highest farm boy's day dreams
that glimpse the Angels light.

And tho the dross of wisdom's come
and left you lone on earth
remember when the Angels call
your soul for a new birth

It wasn't dope that gave you truth
nor money that you stole
— was God himself that entered in
shining your heavenly soul.

— Allen Ginsberg, "On Reading Dylan's Writings," 1973

Saturday, May 21, 2005

The Latest "News" From Hershel Shanks

Hershel Shanks is still apparently unwilling to engage in any serious self-criticism or even enter into any serious dialogue on the subject of the recent forgery scandals. In the most recent issue of Biblical Archaeology Review (May/June 2005) he mugs, rants, denounces, criticizes, and mocks — but he does not seriously discuss any of the issues that have been recently raised about the scandal and the role of his magazine.

On p. 46 appears a misleading article entitled "Israeli Prosecutor Repudiates IAA Report on Forgery." This is based on what Shanks sees as a discrepancy between the IAA report on the ossuary and the wording of the forgery indictment — not, as the headline would imply, a new statement by the prosecutor rejecting the work of the IAA. Shanks notes that the forgery indictment claims that only the words "brother of Jesus" on the ossuary were forged, while, he believes, the IAA report claims that the entire inscription was forged. Shanks trumpets this as an "irreconcilable conflict."
There is not a word in the voluminous IAA report even remotely suggesting that the first part of the inscription is authentic, as the indictment now admits.
So, Hershel, have you actually read the IAA report? Then you might remember these words by Esther Eshel:

B.... The inscription itself exhibits variations in handwriting, thickness and depth of the incised letters when comparing the words “James son of Joseph” to the words “brother of Jesus”. ...
C. There is a significant difference between handwritings in the first and second parts of the inscription. The first part is written in the formal style of a scribe and the second part is cursive. The letters bet and kuf in the first part are characteristic writing of a scribe, and the second, cursive part has a characteristic alef.
In summary, the different handwritings of the two parts indicate that the inscription is not authentic, although the original ossuary may possibly have contained the first part of the inscription, the second part was added later.
In short, Shanks's article is advocacy journalism gone bad: misleading, sloppy, and inaccurate.

Also in the recent BAR is a wholly unwarranted piece (p. 49) ponderously mocking the recent contribution of Andy Vaughn and Carolyn Dobler in the March SBL Forum. For one thing, Shanks does not give a complete URL for the article, so that readers of BAR will not be able to read it for themselves. (It is here.) For another thing, Shanks does not deal in any way with the gravamen of the Vaughn-Dobler piece, which is the statistical analysis of the seals and the implication that the antiquities market has provided many forged items. In this article, as in all of his recent writings on the scandal, Shanks is not dealing seriously with any of the issues; he is just playing to the gallery and hoping no one will call him to account.

I might blog about a few of Shanks's other remarks in future posts. In closing, though, let me just note that in the SBL Forum in which Vaughn and Dobler's essay appeared, there was another essay dealing solely with Shanks's own contribution to the problem (written, as it happens, by me). Although he must have read it, he does not mention the article at all in BAR. Is he afraid his readers will find it? Would he rather attack others than defend himself? Stay tuned.

Thursday, May 19, 2005

Maarav 11/1 Is Out

The new issue of Maarav: A Journal for the Study of the Northwest Semitic Languages and Literatures (11.1, 2004) has arrived in my mailbox. The table of contents is as follows:

Shmuel Ahituv and Ada Yardeni
"Seventeen Aramaic Texts on Ostraca from Idumea: The Late Persian to the Early Hellenistic Periods"

Seth L. Sanders
"What Was the Alphabet For? The Rise of Written Vernaculars and the Making of Israelite National Literature"

Christopher A. Rollston
"Non-Provenanced Epigraphs II: The Status of Non-Provenanced Epigraphs within the Broader Corpus of Northwest Semitic"

Marilyn J. Lundberg
"Editor's Notes: The Ahiram Inscription"

Edward M. Cook
Review of A Dictionary of Judean Aramaic by Michael Sokoloff

Peter T. Daniels
Review of Absent Voices: The Story of Writing Systems in the West by Rochelle Altman

Lots of interesting stuff here for (and by) bibliobloggers. Go here to find out how to get a subscription for yourself or your institution.

Wednesday, May 18, 2005


Mark Goodacre describes the upcoming CARG session on biblioblogging, in which I have the honor of participating. Judging by some of the comments out there (collected by Stephen Carlson here), we will all need a professional 12-step program by November.

I guess we're all supposed to confess whether we're addicted or not. Well, I don't know about you, but I am not addicted. No sir! I can quit anytime. I mean it! No problem. Got that? Not a problem!

My Link to Elvis

I grew up in an atmosphere of warm personal interest in Elvis Presley. My grandparents were acquainted with his grandparents and lived in the same small town. When I was 4 or 5 years old, I was taken to see him perform at the Mississippi-Alabama Fair & Dairy Show (back in the days when he was still good).

Now, this past weekend, I discovered that Dr. William Hunt, the doctor who delivered Elvis, was married to my great-aunt Lula.

No, don't write to me asking for memorabilia, I don't have any. But law! ain't it a small world! (Sorry, after being in Mississippi, my Southern accent has reasserted itself.)


Tuesday, May 17, 2005

"Sexual Cleansing" and Levirate Marriage

Last week, the New York Times featured an article about the practice of "sexual cleansing" in Africa:

Here and in a number of nearby nations including Zambia and Kenya, a husband's funeral has long concluded with a final ritual: sex between the widow and one of her husband's relatives, to break the bond with his spirit and, it is said, save her and the rest of the village from insanity or disease. Widows have long tolerated it, and traditional leaders have endorsed it, as an unchallenged tradition of rural African life.

Now AIDS is changing that. Political and tribal leaders are starting to speak out publicly against so-called sexual cleansing, condemning it as one reason H.I.V. has spread to 25 million sub-Saharan Africans, killing 2.3 million last year alone. They are being prodded by leaders of the region's fledging women's rights movement, who contend that lack of control over their sex lives is a major reason 6 in 10 of those infected in sub-Saharan Africa are women.

It sounds like a real problem; but I'm probably not the only Biblical scholar who was reminded of the practice of levirate marriage. A woman widowed without children was, in ancient Israel, married to her husband's brother in order, by means of a legal fiction, to bear children to her late husband (Deut. 25:5-10). From the Anchor Bible Dictionary:

This type of marriage is known as levirate marriage, from the Latin levir, “brother-in-law.” Its continuation into the NT era is demonstrated by the Sadducees’ question to Jesus about the childless woman who was married in sequence to six of her late husband’s brothers (Matt 22:23–33 = Mark 12:18–27 = Luke 20:27–40). We have seen that levirate marriage existed in Ugarit, in the Middle Assyrian (no. 33) and Hittite law codes (no. 193), and possibly in the Nuzi texts. In these texts the primary concern is with producing a (male) child to carry on the name of the deceased husband.

Here's my question: Is there any historical connection between the levirate law and the practice of "sexual cleansing"? Is the latter a debased and superstitious form of the former; or is the levirate law a later development of a primitive ritual that originally had nothing to do with "preserving the husband's name"? It seems to me that both alternatives are equally likely. It is also possible, of course, that there is no historical relationship at all. Maybe a historical anthropologist (if there is such a thing) can answer this.

BIBLIOGRAPHY: Richard Kalmin, "Levirate Law," Anchor Bible Dictionary

UPDATE: The article referred to by Andrew in the comment below is excellent. It doesn't address the historical question I raised, but many cross-cultural comparisons suggest themselves.

Wednesday, May 11, 2005

Goin' South

"Ralph" will be on a short hiatus the next few days as we visit kinfolk in Mississippi.

In the meantime, you can enjoy this article by a BBC reporter (HT: Bible & Interpretation), who reports on Mississippi with the air of Livingstone returning from the jungle. He discovers that there are — gasp! — Christians in the Deep South.

Tuesday, May 10, 2005

Google's Peep Show

I've been playing around with Google Print, and enjoying it — up to a point. It promises to be a valuable tool — one of these days. Their mission statement is as follows:

Google's mission is to organize the world's information, but much of that information isn't yet online. Google Print aims to get it there by putting book content where you can find it most easily – right in your Google search results.

Good enough. The problem is, I haven't yet come across a book whose entire content is online. The maximum amount I have been able to access for any one book is about 15 pages.

So what's the point? Is this in fact only an elaborate way of getting users to buy the book, as the numerous "buy this book from" links would suggest? There is in fact supposed to be a "find it in a library" link, but it doesn't appear on any pages that I have seen.

At this point, Google Print (and I know it's in the beta stage) is the print equivalent of a peep show: "Try these free samples! Get hooked and buy the rest!" They're going to have to lift some limitations on presenting full content, or else the tool will be more frustrating than helpful.

Saturday, May 07, 2005

Coleridge's Pants

It is interesting to reflect that John Betjeman was one of C. S. Lewis's first students. They didn't get along.
Even humour separated the two men, and Betjeman complained peevishly that his tutor had forever ruined Coleridge's 'Kubla Khan' by wondering whether the 'pants' in the line, 'As if this earth in fast thick pants were breathing,' were made of wool or fur.
Betjeman would really have hated this blog.

BIBLIOGRAPHY: Oxford in English Literature: The Making, and Undoing, of 'The English Athens', by John Dougill. (Univ. Michigan Press, 1998.)

Friday, May 06, 2005

George Psalmanazar

Mark Goodacre calls our attention to Alice Liddell, of Alice in Wonderland fame, as one of the DNB "Lives of the Week." Another featured life is that of George Psalmanazar (1679-1763), a fascinating character, a mad linguistic genius. A few excerpts:

... Psalmanazar decided to make his identity more exotic, and posed as a Japanese convert to Christianity. To facilitate the project, he revised the certificate that he had had drawn up to prove that he was Irish, and devised an alphabet and many words of a language that he thought might be taken for Japanese. Aware that Hebrew was written from right to left, he imagined that other ‘oriental’ languages would follow that pattern. He invented twenty letters with shapes, names, and pronunciations that resemble some Greek and Hebrew letters. By his own account, he also added ‘many other particulars equally difficult, such as a considerable piece of a new language and grammar, a new division of the year into twenty months, a new religion, &c. and all out of my own head’ (Memoirs, 137).

... this time [he] used the name of Salmanazar (ibid., 169), which he took from the name of a biblical king of Assyria and captor of the Israelites, Shalmaneser (2 Kings 17). Later he began spelling the name with an initial P to make it more exotic.

... [H]is fanciful account of Formosa, which occupies little more than half of the book's 327 pages ... raised doubts about his veracity in several quarters at the same time as it excited many readers. Among his entertaining but suspicious claims were that Formosa was Japanese rather than Chinese; that the state religion, founded by an avatar named Psalmanaazaar, required the annual sacrifice of 18,000 boys under the age of nine; and that the production of children was facilitated by the encouragement of polygamy, although adultery was absolutely forbidden.

... [Regarding other cases of false identity and forgery in the 18th century]: In these and many other cases of forgery and assumed identity in the period, the impostor imagined he had access to hidden information and that he himself was in touch with a deeper or older, often more ‘natural’, tradition of knowledge than that accepted by the current establishment. The flourishing of such forgers at this time may have been a response to the increased professionalization of knowledge during the period. Psalmanazar's quarrel with the Royal Society, his defence of revelation in religion, and his immersion in ancient Hebrew may be all regarded as a rebellion against modern forms of knowledge.

OK, so a "defence of revelation in religion, and an immersion in ancient Hebrew" are rebellions against modernity, are they? Well, count me in. Vive la revolution!

Happily, Psalmanazar eventually recanted his lies, became a believing Christian and a friend of the young Samuel Johnson. He died shortly before Johnson first encountered James Boswell in a London bookshop.

Wednesday, May 04, 2005

Onkelos in Les Miserables

I'm always interested when the targums wind up in unexpected places. I ran into a mention of Onkelos in Victor Hugo's Les Miserables, ch. 5:

[The monsignor] was a man of letters and rather learned. He left behind him five or six very curious manuscripts; among others, a dissertation on this verse in Genesis, In the beginning, the spirit of God floated upon the waters. With this verse he compares three texts: the Arabic verse which says, The winds of God blew; Flavius Josephus who says, A wind from above was precipitated upon the earth; and finally, the Chaldaic paraphrase of Onkelos, which renders it, A wind coming from God blew upon the face of the waters.

The good bishop was apparently interested in renderings of Genesis 1:2 that translated ruach as "wind." No more is said in the novel of this interesting dissertation.

Many modern translations translate "wind," including the JPS and NRSV.

Monday, May 02, 2005

"The Curse of Akkad" and Global Warming

For the first time since cities were built and founded,
The great agricultural tracts produced no grain,
The inundated tracts produced no fish,
The irrigated orchards produced neither syrup nor wine,
The gathered clouds did not rain, the masgurum did not grow.
At that time, one shekel’s worth of oil was only one-half quart,
One shekel’s worth of grain was only one-half quart. . . .
These sold at such prices in the markets of all the cities!
He who slept on the roof, died on the roof,
He who slept in the house, had no burial,
People were flailing at themselves from hunger.

That's from the "Curse of Akkad," a lament over the fall of the empire of Sargon the Great. It appears in Part II of a remarkable series of articles on global warming by Elizabeth Kolbert appearing now in the New Yorker. Kolbert has convinced me that global warming is real, caused by human factors, and of grave consequence.

I don't share the academy's visceral loathing of George Bush, but his administration has, in my opinion, fumbled badly on environmental policy. Here's hoping someone does something about it before 2100. Kolbert quotes one scientist:

“We may say that we’re more technologically able than earlier societies. But one thing about climate change is it’s potentially geopolitically destabilizing. And we’re not only more technologically able; we’re more technologically able destructively as well. I think it’s impossible to predict what will happen. I guess—though I won’t be around to see it—I wouldn’t be shocked to find out that by 2100 most things were destroyed.” He paused. “That’s sort of an extreme view.”

By the way, she quotes "The Curse of Akkad" because archaeologists working at Tell Leilan in Syria have theorized that climate change — a drought, to be specific — brought Sargon's 2nd millennium empire to an end.