28 July 2014
Don’t I have a heart, to write a piece about an unsuccessful book by a writer who has died only recently? Mustn’t a reviewer stick to the principle that of the dead, we say nothing unless it is something good?
Yes, of course. Except when the author has raised a topic of particular interest. Maurice Casey’s Jesus. Evidence and Argument or Mythicist Myths? is such a book and if I am quite critical about it, it is because I think the author has recognized the urgency of a very serious problem that deserves much more attention.
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3 July 2014
The baby stone
Today, I received a message from a friend in Beirut, who recently visited Baalbek. When you arrive to that city, you will pass the ancient quarry, where you will see the largest stone that was ever cut by men. It is called Hajar al-Hibla, the “pregnant stone”. The owner of the nearby souvenir shop greeted my friend with the words that “the pregnant has delivered!”
What had happened? Archaeologists had been inspecting the site, when they discovered a small, straight stone edge. They investigated it, and soon discovered a “baby stone” that is probably even bigger than its mother. Hajar al-Hibla has a length of twenty meters and a height and width of 4½ meters, this one is 5 meters wide; its width is still unknown. No doubt, both stones were cut out for the nearby temple of Jupiter.
The photo above was sent to me by my friends at travel agency Libanva.
Judith Weingarten reminds me of the unfinished obelisk attributed to Hatshepsut. It is 42 m long and 2.5-4.4 m wide. It is even bigger than the stones at Baalbek.
4 May 2014
Centuries after the destruction of Troy, its mighty walls still stood, eight meters high. Its sanctuaries and well house were recognizable. It is easy to imagine how the shepherds on the plain were impressed and told stories about the ancient city. Once, there had been a terrible war, they will have said, and the warriors had been people of superhuman strength. Not even those heroes, however, could have built the walls: they were not made by men but by gods.
Gods, heroes, and century-old ruins: that was all that a poet like Homer knew about Bronze Age Troy, the background of his Iliad. Other bards sung about Knossos, Mycenae, and Thebes, and in their poems we can also recognize echoes from the fourteenth and thirteenth century BCE. Echoes, only echoes: the poems were largely fictitious. The Aegean Bronze Age civilization was almost completely forgotten.
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1 April 2014
My Dutch blog has more readers than my English one. Perhaps it has, in Holland, even some influence. After I had written how Israeli archaeologists are angling for funds by presenting every find as confirming this Biblical story or contradicting that one, I was invited even by a Christian broadcasting organization to explain how this was damaging the study of ancient society.
Today, I received an interesting e-mail from an Israeli archaeologist who liked my point of view but wanted to show me that occasionally, archaeology does indeed confirm the story of the Bible. So, I now have a real scope: the discovery of the stone shown above.
Discovered in Cafarnaum, it looks like a normal stone, but it isn’t. It has been identified as the very object that is mentioned in the gospels of Matthew (8.20) and Luke (9.58): the place which the Son of Man did not have to lay his head.
2 March 2014
The study of history is not just a story based on sources. A scholar is able to explain why he does what he does; awareness of methodological problems is the difference between a professional and a dilettante. Explaining this is of the greatest importance, because there are two disturbing developments.
- An increasing number of people has received a higher education, and is capable of recognizing the errors made by professional scholars, who are increasingly specialized and are often insufficiently aware of developments outside their specialism.
- On internet, people select the information they like – and this is usually bad information, because bad information drives out good.
The first development causes scepticism, while the second allows it to flourish. We must, therefore, explain our methods: philogical, exegetical, archaeological, historical. In this way, people will understand why information offered by professional scholars is better than other kinds of information.
Although it has, since about 2005, been generally recognized that websites like Livius.org and books for a larger audience must not just present the facts but should explain method as well, no satisfying way to explain method has been found so far. However, we can at least try to create awareness that history is a serious discipline. I have put online some articles on methodological and related topics:
Comments are welcome.
9 January 2014
Messianic symbols: the star of David on the rebuilt Temple
I am currently writing about the rise of eschatological speculation in the second century BCE. Many texts, especially the Dead Sea Scrolls, are quite allusive: you need to know what the Branch, the Shoot, the Star and so on mean to understand what the text is about. It’s one big intertextual web.
I do not think it was necessary to write in code. At first, I thought it was a bit of a toy for the writing elite, which is not without parallel in ancient literate societies. The Epic of Gilgamesh already contains puns and word plays. But another thought crossed my mind: you can see a similar, highly allusive, kind of poetry at the same time in Alexandria.
If Greek concepts like the soul can find their way to sectarian Jewish religious texts, and if even an anti-Hellenistic text like Maccabees dates events to the Seleucid era, is it possible that a Callimachus influenced Jewish writers?
On a related note: is it too far-fetched to draw a parallel between the use of a dead type of Greek in the Second Sophistic and the use of Hebrew in the Mishna? (Personally, I think this is far-fetched, but perhaps someone knows more.)
Your input is welcome.
30 November 2013
When we think of ancient Greek civilization, we rarely think of Afghanistan and the Punjab. We’re not alone. Most historians ignore these countries too. One of the few exceptions is the American historian Frank Holt, who has been studying ancient Bactria and Gandara for many years.
Lost World of the Golden King is his latest and most interesting book, but unlike his earlier publications, he is not focusing on Antiquity but on the study of Antiquity. In this way, he shows the study of the past at its best.
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