Casey on the Mythicist Jesus

28 July 2014

caseyDon’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.

Read the rest of this entry »

Review: E. Gruen, Rethinking the Other in Antiquity (2)

19 June 2011

[This is the second part of a review; the first one is here.]


Nevertheless, Gruen tackles a non-problem. I do not think there are many scholars who believe that the Romans were always hostile about the Germans, that the Greeks never said something kind about the Egyptians, and that everybody disliked the Jews. Granted, Gruen refers to Antony Pagden, the author of Worlds at War (2008), as an example of someone who makes gross mistakes; but who takes Pagden’ simple ontological holism seriously? As the regular readers of this little blog will be aware, I am usually the first one to agree that the current generation of classicists and ancient historians is not up to their tasks (example), but they are not as short-sighted as Pagden. Really. I think that most readers of Gruen’s book will read the words “the distance between cultures could be crossed in multiple and intriguing ways that elide the antithesis” with a certain indifference. Duh.

As I said, Gruen asks the wrong question. His answer is also incomplete. Granted, the subject matter is so rich that it is impossible to deal with every single aspect. No one will blame Gruen for not mentioning the temple of Isis in Rome, a fully Egyptian enclave in Italy about which many hostile stories were told, but which was still the largest sanctuary in a city that did not lack large sanctuaries. (Come to think of it, on the Palatine, the core of the core of Rome, the tallest temples were dedicated to Cybele and Elagabal.)

Yet, if Gruen wants to prove that cultural interconnectedness was important, it is not smart to use evidence from comparatively little-known authors like Silius Italicus. Why not Virgil himself, with his borrowings from Jewish literature in his account of Aeneas’ descent into the Netherworld? A chapter on xenophobia and xenophilia in Rome’s greatest authors might have strengthened Gruen’s thesis.

Summa summarum: Rethinking the Other in Antiquity has some conceptual weaknesses, but it is fascinating and interesting, and the reader will enjoy the pleasant feeling that there is still a lot to be discovered about the ancient world. “Classical” does not mean that everything about it has already been said.

More than once, I was reminded of my teacher, the late Pieter Willem de Neeve, who once had to review another book by Gruen, which he considered to be only partly successful, but which he also liked very much, because Gruen had shown many new aspects of texts which De Neeve had believed he already knew. This was also my experience, which says a lot about Gruen’s broad look at things, and about the texts from the ancient world: you can read them a hundred times, and they continue to surprise you.

References to Lévi-Strauss are mercifully absent.

Review: E. Gruen, Rethinking the Other in Antiquity (1)

19 June 2011


Rethinking the Other in Antiquity is a fascinating book. This conclusion is in itself interesting, because author Erich Gruen asks the wrong question and offers an incomplete answer. However, he also offers much interesting information. In the end, the book is pretty successful.

First, the wrong question. Analysis of “the Other” has been a fashionable topic for quite a long time already. Typically, an ancient historian or classicist collected everything that the Greeks and Romans had written about one of their neighbors (e.g., the Persians, Scythians, Carthaginians, Germans) and investigated how the classical authors presented their subject matter. The Carthaginian from literature often turned out to be a kind of anti-Roman, with all vices that the Romans detested most in themselves. In an interesting chapter in his Carthage Must Be Destroyed (2010), British classicist Richard Miles showed how the Carthaginian vices changed with the developing self-image of the Romans.

To the best of my knowledge, no classicist or historian has ever claimed that the “Other” was only the anti-Greek or anti-Roman. When I read an article about, say, Greek images of Egypt, I never have the impression that the modern author implied that the Greeks did not also recognize the Egyptians as human beings with whom they had a lot in common. Yet, Gruen sets out to show that the same sources that are read as presentations of the Other, can be read as evidence that the ancient nations recognized similarities.

The result is, as I said, fascinating and certainly worth reading. Of course, the relations were not just black and white, “we” versus “the other”, antagonistic only. The stories that the ancient nations told about each other, indeed show that they often believed that they had a lot to share.

In the first part of the book, “Impressions of the Other”, Gruen deals with Greek ideas about the Persians and Egyptians, Roman views of Carthage, Caesar’s Gauls, Tacitus’ Germans and Jews, and ideas about people with a different color. In the brilliant second part, “Connections with the Other”, Gruen presents the patterns used to stress cultural interconnectedness. In their foundation legends, for example, the Greeks and Romans presented themselves as descendants from other nations; in genealogical lists, Greeks and Jews could describe themselves as brothers of other nations; and there was always a possibility to adopt each other’s roles, like a Greek presenting a Jew as in the traditionally Greek role of philosopher.

Often, Gruen’s conclusions seem a bit too obvious. I was not surprised to read that Aeschylus does not present us with a hostile portrayal of the Persians in his famous play with the same title. Still, Gruen has a lot of interesting observations to make. I had not expected that the famous expression “Punica fides” is in fact very rare. There were many surprises, especially in the second part of the book.

[to be continued]

More Nonsense about Sodom and Gomorrah

1 May 2011

The destruction of Sodom (Doré)

I already blogged about Sodom and Gomorah: people are looking for it at the bottom of the Dead Sea, although the Bible is quite explicit that the remains were visible on the land (Zephaniah 2.9). When you write about Antiquity, the sources are the thing you can ignore, of course.

Or, if you have actually read the sources and haven’t found what you need, you just invent it: Archimedes’ Heat Ray, Herodotus’ visit to Babylon, or Octavian calling himself Octavian – just three examples of things not mentioned in our sources, reproduced by professional historians, employed by universities. Sources are only there to be either ignored or expanded with the stuff you need.

Alan Bond and Mark Hempsell of Bristol University are exceptional, because they are capable of making both mistakes simultaneously, if I am to believe this article. They have written a book called A Sumerian Observation of the Köfels’ Impact Event, in which they argue that a cuneiform tablet now in the British Museum contains a description of a Sumerian observation of a very large meteor – actually an asteroid over a kilometre in diameter – that impacted a place in Austria called Köfels. They can date it to June 29, 3123 BCE.

So far, so good. I wonder if there were Sumerian astronomical records that long ago, but for argument’s sake, I assume they are right. Now if the article I linked to refers to their own words, they also assume that a piece of this meteor destroyed Sodom and Gomorrah. Unfortunately, the Bible refers to a terrible shower, and does not mention anything similar to a meteor:

Then the Lord rained upon Sodom and upon Gomorrah brimstone and fire from the Lord out of heaven (Genesis 19.24).

In other words, Bond and Hempsell are adding something to their source that simply isn’t there. It’s the same approach of texts that I discussed here: if an ancient text says that the Nile has converted into blood, you think “blood is red”, and because algae can be red too, you read the Biblical account as a description of algae. A meteor is destructive and falls out of heaven; the rain of the Lord is destructive and falls out of heaven; hence, a meteor is the rain of the lord. Textbook examples of the fallacy of the undistributed middle.

But even when we accept that Genesis describes a meteor impact, there remains another problem. Bond and Hempsell have decided to accept the story in Genesis as sufficiently trustworthy to be studied. So, why don’t they accept the chronology of Genesis as well? Even if we accept the longlevity of the Biblical patriarchs, there is no way to date the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah prior to the twenty-first century BCE.

Bond and Hempsell want to have it both ways: they want to accept the Biblical story about the destruction of the cities, but don’t want to accept the dates implied in the Bible. That is possible. Historical criticism is intended to help you establish why you can use which parts of the same text, and why some parts are more reliable than others. And fortunately, historians have been looking at the stories of the Abraham cycle. Although the consensus is not uncontested, many scholars will date Abraham to the Middle Bronze Age, let’s say in the seventeenth century. Again, this cannot be combined with a meteor impact in late fourth millennium. (I won’t discuss the theory – very likely, in my view – that the Abraham cycle is not historical at all.)

Bond and Hempsell ought to have stuck to reading the tablet itself. Their proposal is sufficiently interesting. As it now stands, they are adding a meteor to the Bible that is not mentioned and ignore a chronology that is. I hope that the journalist of the article I linked to, messed up things, but I am not sure.

Maundy Thursday / Wednesday

21 April 2011

Salvador Dalí, The Last Supper

No one likes to be in the chair of an amateur dentist. No one likes his government to spend money on nuclear research by amateurs. But everybody seems to believe that amateur historians can add something valuable. Now I am not denying that amateurs have contributed enormeously to the development of ancient history – but Winckelmann and Gibbon lived in the eighteenth century and Schliemann in the nineteenth. As a rule of the thumb, we can accept that, unless proven otherwise, an amateur historian is an unqualified historian.

As an example, I mention the British physicist Colin Humphreys, who has recently claimed that the Last Supper took place on a Wednesday, and not on Maundy Thursday. Well, there is a problem indeed. The Gospel of John contradicts the Synoptic Gospels (Marc, Matthew, Luke). The latter describe the Last Supper as a Passover meal; Jesus is crucified on the next day. John, on the other hand, presents it as a normal meal, and states that on the day of the crucifixion, the Jews were still preparing the Passover meal. All agree that Jesus was arrested on a Thursday evening.

Humphreys says that Jesus and his followers used a different calendar than the Temple authorities. Using his own calendar, Jesus could celebrate the Passover meal on one day, as indicated in the Synoptic Gospels; while other Jews might celebrate it on another day, as indicated by John. This might mean that the Last Supper actually took place on a Wednesday, which would also create some room for the complex series of events between the arrest and the crucifixion.

Humphreys’ theory is not new. It was, in a slightly different form, proposed by Annie Jaubert, in 1957, in a book called La date de la cène. The trouble with the Jaubert-Humphreys Thesis is that it solves a problem that does not exist by using a method that is self-contradictory.

First, the non-existing problem. There is absolutely nothing inherently impossible in the series of events following the Last Supper: arrest, a hearing by Caiaphas during the late evening, transfer to Pilate during the night, trial early in the morning, flagellation, crucifixion. I visited Jerusalem quite recently and walked from the western slope of the Mount of Olives to the Davidson Center (which must have been the place of Caiaphas’ official residence), through the Jewish Quarter to the Citadel (Pilate‘s palace); after that, I walked back through David Street, through the Triple Suq to the Basilica of the Sepulcher (which is not far from Golgotha). This is more or less “the real Via Dolorosa” and I needed less than two hours, including coffee and conversations with shopkeepers.

Second, the self-contradicting logic. Any professional historian will immediately realize what is wrong with the Jaubert-Humphreys Thesis: they accept the gospels where they are contradicting each other (the date of the Passover meal) while they reject the evidence of the gospels where they are in agreement – Jesus was arrested on a Thursday. This is not logic, it is a travesty.

Unfortunately, this is not an innocent, funny story about scientists who should not pretend they are historians. They are common (example 1, example 2) and because everybody knows that unless proven otherwise, an amateur historian is just an unqualified historian, they are not really dangerous. Still, there is a complication: Humphreys has an academic title, which gives credibility to his parody of scholarship. Our universities are sources of disinformation. This is the problem I am addressing with my series on common errors; a solution I do not have, but often I am wondering whether we should not create a system to retract a doctorate.

Sodom and Gomorrah? They Will Never Find It

22 March 2011

The destruction of Sodom (Doré)

When you look for the ruins of Sodom and Gomorrah, the obvious book to ignore is the Bible. Just like evangelical explorers looking for Noah’s Ark investigate everything except for the text that helps to identify the location of the object they’re looking for, searchers for Sodom and Gomorrah simply forget to read.

Here‘s a pretty shocking article that Russia and Jordan have signed an agreement to search the bottom of the Dead Sea for the remains of the Biblical cities of Sodom and Gomorrah”. The project apparently receives state support from Jordan, after Israel had already sent out a submarine. Unfortunately, wherever the remains of the destroyed cities were seen in Antiquity, they were not at the bottom of the Dead Sea. The Bible is quite explicit:

Sodom and Gomorrah — covered with thornbushes (Zephaniah 2.9)

If there are thornbushes, Zephaniah must have seen the ruins on the land. Looking for the remains of the destroyed cities in the sea is just stupid. QED.

Announcing the Destruction of a City

29 August 2010

Defenders of Niniveh, killed in action while trying to prevent the sack of their city

A friend of mine recently attended a lecture in which someone discussed the speech of the Rabshakeh, an Assyrian commander who besieged Jerusalem in 701. In 2 Kings 18.25, he announces that he will sack the city: “Is it without the will of the Lord that I have come up to this place to destroy it?”

At this point, the lecturer paused and asked to those present if they could name another example of the announcement of the destruction of a city. No one knew. The speaker mentioned Thucydides‘ Melian Dialog, in which the Athenians threaten to destroy the city of Melos, which my friend found surprising. He summarized the lecture for me, and I got the impression from his words that the speaker had suggested that there were only two examples of a direct threat.

That turned out not to be the case, but since I read his summary of that lecture, I have been wondering how often commanders announced that they would destroy their opponents’ city. After all, it seems like a nice adhortation to your own men that they will be allowed to plunder. At the same time, it must be demoralizing for the besieged if they know that they will be molested, raped, killed. I would have expected that there would be evidence for threats like these, and indeed remembered Censorinus’ speech at Carthage (Appian, Punic Wars 81).

And that’s it. I’ve posted it at RomanArmyTalk (here), but even the guys over there, who are usually well-informed, could not mention a fourth instance. Anyone any thoughts?


13 July 2010

Baal (Louvre, Paris)

After several postings on updated old webpages, I am happy to be able to announce a completely new page: Ba’al, the name or title of one of the main deities of the ancient Near East. He is of course notorious as one of the favorite targets of the Jewish prophets of the Old Testament, but gods named Ba’al are known from Syria and Phoenicia as well.

Ba’al is especially well-known from a series of tablets from Ugarit, which tell the story about his fight against the sea god, his palace, and his temporary defeat in a conflict with the god of death. The god was also venerated in Carthage, had a twin named Bel in Babylonia, is mentioned on the Mesha stela, and is known from countless personal names.

The most famous story is, of course, that about the prophet Eliah, challenging the prophets of Baal on Mount Carmel. When I was preparing my article, I received a message from a friend who has been there several times, and remarked that the ancient altars, which were apparently still there, had been removed, because conservative Jews might take umbrage over those pagan objects.

The new page is here.

Common Errors (36): A Needle’s Eye

3 June 2010

A camel and its child, two hours old.

One of the most famous words of Jesus, an expression that has become proverbal, is that “It is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter into the Kingdom of God” (Mark 10.25). Tour guides in the Near East will, when they bring tourists to a kervansaray, inevitably point at the small door-within-the-big-door, and tell the people that it is called “a needle’s eye”, that a camel might pass through it, and that Jesus’ words referred to this type of door.

That must be a very comfortable thought for wealthy Christian tourists. Just as a camel may, with some difficulty, enter the saray, they can enter the Kingdom of God. Unfortunately, the tour guide’s story is not true. Neither is the story true that there was a gate in ancient Jerusalem that was called “the Eye of the Needle”. There is simply no ancient Jewish or Christian text that refers to such a gate. And it is also unlikely, although not completely impossible, that there was a scribal error, and that the Gospel in fact refers to a cable (kamilos) instead of a camel (kamelos).

Jesus’ words have a parallel in the Babylonian Talmud (Berakoth 55b; Baba Mezi’a 38b): here, the difficulty of something is likened to an elephant being drawn through the eye of a needle. Jesus is quoting a Jewish proverb, meaning that something can never be done. This impossibility is also the subject of other stories: think only of the remark that “No one can serve God and Mammon” (Matthew 6.24). Or take the parabel about Lazarus and the rich man – even though it is not said that the rich man has committed evil, he is punished in Hell (Luke 16.19ff). The fact that he was rich and could feast sumptously, is presented as sufficient explanation.

In Jesus’ view, the rich had already received their share of happiness. He was not predicting that in the not too distant future, the poor would be happier, he was announcing that the rich would be punished: “Woe to you that are rich … woe to you that are filled … woe to you that now laugh” (Luke 6.24). No one has every said that Jesus’ message was easy – on the contrary.

<Overview of Common Errors>

Common Errors (30): The Menorah

20 February 2010

The Menorah as shown on the honorary arch of Titus.

In 455, the Vandals captured and looted Rome. They took many objects of art with them, including the Temple Treasure that had been in Jerusalem until the Roman commander Titus had sacked that city (in 70 CE). The Vandals took the objects to Carthage, and lost them to the Byzantines, who captured the city in 534. According to Procopius (History of the Wars, 4.9), the Jewish treasures were taken to Constantinople, where general Belisarius displayed them during his triumphal entry.

Among these were the treasures of the Jews, which Titus … had brought to Rome after the capture of Jerusalem. And one of the Jews, seeing these things, approached one of those known to the emperor and said: “These treasures I think it inexpedient to carry into the palace in Byzantium. Indeed, it is not possible for them to be elsewhere than in the place where Solomon, the king of the Jews, formerly placed them. For it is because of these that Gizeric captured the palace of the Romans, and that now the Roman army has captured that the Vandals.”

When this had been brought to the ears of the Emperor, he became afraid and quickly sent everything to the sanctuaries of the Christians in Jerusalem.

So, the treasures of the Jewish temple were returned to Jerusalem. They are not in the Vatican, as some people seem to think. I heard that urban legend for the first time in Italy, some fifteen years ago, and believed that the story, which is so flatly contradicted by a well-known and accessible ancient author, had died a well-deserved death, but I was wrong. When Benedict XVI visited Israel last spring, this myth was suddenly in the headlines again, because two pious Jews demanded that the pope would be seized and kept until the Menorah was returned. The judge dismissed the case on 11 May 2009 – unfortunately argueing that a foreign chief of state was immune, instead of saying that lunatic fringe theories ought to be ignored.

It must be noted, though, that there are other stories about the Temple Treasure. Ibn Abdelhakam writes that the Arabian conquerors of Spain found the “Table of Solomon” when they captured Toledo in 711 (History of the Conquest of Spain, 21). It was brought to Damascus. If this is a reference to the Table of the Table for the Shewbread, this suggests that at least one object was brought to Spain instead of Carthage. In any case, there is not a single piece of evidence that connects the Menorah to the Vatican.

<Overview of Common Errors>

Commemorating the dead (or not)

27 December 2009

The Colosseum

I already blogged on the Christian martyrs venerated in the Colosseum, and pointed out that there is no evidence that Christians were killed on that terrible place. The evidence, in fact, suggests the opposite. No Medieval list of martyrdom sites mentions the Colosseum. There is actually more evidence of Jewish martyrdoms: the Babylonian Talmud (Sanhedrin 39a) mentions an emperor ordering a rabbi to be thrown into an arena full of wild animals. It’s not much, but more than we can say about Christian martyrs.

Yet, you will not find a Jewish memorial in the Colosseum, and not because our Talmudic scene deals with an amphitheater, not the amphitheater of Rome. The reason is much more profound.

Christians will go to the places where people have been killed and say their prayers, believing that God will hear them. The Omnipresent is also present where atrocities have taken place. To some extent, secular people share this idea: even though they will not say a prayer, they erect monuments on crime scenes. In Rome, the memorial of the Fosse Ardeatine massacre is a case in point.

This is not the way Jews look at things. Places like the Colosseum are somehow outside the realm of God’s goodness. This means that there are better places to say your prayers, and even if we had absolute certainty that out rabbi faced martyrdom in the Colosseum, there would still not be a Jewish monument. The locations of the horrors are not the place of worship, and are best abandoned.

I am not saying that this view is better than the Christian/secular view. Nor do I think that we should abandon the Colosseum altogether. Yet, the Roman archaeological authorities, who have always been able to present their many treasures in an often beautiful fashion, ought to be capable of creating a more dignified atmosphere at the Colosseum – without shouting tourist guides, without exceptionally amateurish reenactors, without souvenir shops. Unfortunately, the only thing I’ve heard from the tourist authorities, a proposal to organize gladiatorial contests in the Colosseum again, was singularly revolting. Rome should be capable of inventing something better.

Difficile est saturam non scribere

16 December 2009

Simple comme bonjour

It’s early in the morning, but this article has already completely spoiled my day: “Burial cloth found in Jerusalem cave casts doubt on authenticity of Turin Shroud“.

No, it does not cast doubt, because we know that the Turin Shroud is a medieval forgery. So why does this archaeologist answer questions about it? There are quite a lot of people who understand the basic principle of radiocarbon dating. Many people have had chemistry classes at high school, and even more people understand the gaussian curve that explains why it is so bloody unlikely that an object dated to 1325±35 can actually be from the first century.

The article illustrates a mistake many academicians make when they are asked to explain something to the press: underestimating that there are many people who are pretty well-educated. When talking to the press, academicians consistently ignore that in developed countries, up to 50% of the population at some time in their lives enter higher education.

My favorite example is an ancient historian from Cambridge who explained something about Constantine‘s conversion on TV, causing my girlfriend to say that she already knew this from her history classes long time ago. If this was the level of Cambridge historians, she added, she could only despise them. It was a bit exaggerated, but when you see a historian, a classicist, or an archaeologist on TV, it is hard not to start writing satire.

Now there are of course also people who do not understand radiocarbon dating. I do not think they will read the article that spoiled my day, but if they do, they will be left with the impression that the authenticity of the Turin Shroud is still contested. I am aware that our archaeologist intended to achieve the opposite, but he would have been more successful if he had said something like “that is not an issue anymore and it is a waste of time to discuss it – especially because I have something more interesting to tell”.

Because that is what is really sad about this article: our archaeologist has discovered something truly interesting. So you must read the story, after all, and try to ignore the crap. Good luck.

Quirinius’ Census

13 December 2009

Ostracon, recording a part of Quirinius' census. Nationalbibliothek, Vienna.

The ostracon to the right can be seen in the National Library of Austria. It was found in Elephantine in southern Egypt, and was written by someone who was obviously accustomed to writing many texts. A man named Amonios son of Amonios, tax gatherer, declares that a man named Soros, son of Pachompos, had paid the head tax in the fifth regnal year of the emperor Claudius (i.e., 45 CE). The man had paid sixteen drachms, for himself and seven relatives.

Nobody likes to pay taxes, and two drachms per person was a substantial amount (about two daily wages for a skilled worker). Before the taxes could be gathered, however, the Romans needed to know how many people lived in a province, which is why they organized censuses. So, when the Roman emperor Augustus decided to dethrone the Judaean ruler Archelaus and add his realm to the province of Syria, in 6 CE, governor Publius Sulpicius Quirinius had to count the people. Many Jews tried to obstruct the census; their leader was Judas.

The Jewish historian Flavius Josephus suggests that there were disturbances (Jewish Antiquities 18.4-6, 23), and this can also be deduced from a remark in the Acts of the Apostles, where it is implied that Judas’ band of followers was dispersed and Judas was killed (5.37). However, the revolt is absent from the catalog of armed interventions by Syrian governors included in the Histories of the Roman historian Tacitus (5.9). This means that it was not necessary to send the legions, which in turn means that the rebellion cannot have been widespread.

Yet, the Jews remembered Quirinius’ census as a national disaster. Writing two or three generations after the events, Luke could assume that every reader knew Quirinius’ governorship, realized what calamity had befallen the nation, and how bad the situation had been (Luke 2.2). It is the background, black as the night, for the spectacle he is about to present: the coming of the Messiah. When Judas’ bandits and the Roman soldiers were fighting, when things were at their worst, God had shown Himself to be nearest.

Eric Cline, Biblical Archaeology

20 November 2009


Never judge a book by its cover, they say, and indeed, the laudatory quotes on the cover are usually best left unread. But the remark by Aren Maeir, quoted on the backcover of Eric Cline‘s Biblical Archaeology. A Very Short Introduction, that “this book is a gem”, is completely true. Being forced to stay at home by an acute bursitis of the knee, I read it in a couple of hours, and am very happy to have done so.

The book offers two histories. The first half is a history of the discipline, from Flinders Petrie to Albright to Yadin to Finkelstein, with some digressions about archaeolocal methods; the second half is an overview of the way in which archaeology confirms or contradicts the story told in the Bible. The final chapter deals with the notorious frauds of the last years: the pomegranate, the James Ossuary, and the Jehoash Tablet.

I write “contradicts”, but Cline himself writes that “the archaeological findings and the biblical account are asymmetrical”, which is probably a better way to phrase it. Written sources and archaeological finds are two types of evidence, and can be read in various ways. “Asymmetrical” is a nice way to express it, because there is often no real contradiction. We will never excavate the seven walls of Ecbatana mentioned by Herodotus, because it is a fairy-tale motif; that until 2012, we had no archaeological confirmation of Caesar‘s conquest of Belgium, was not worrysome, because his southern campaigns had been confirmed; Israel is not exceptional when archaeology does not say the same as the written sources.

It is for this reason that I was surprised by the title. Israel should not be exceptional and the expression “Biblical Archaeology” ought to be obsolete. “Syro-Palestinian Archaeology” is more accurate. Cline is aware of the problem: archaeologists digging in the Middle East are interested in much more than the Bible, which remains an important source among other sources, just like its reliability is one question among other questions. Cline quotes Amnon Ben-Tor, who said that eliminating the Bible from the archaeology of the Land of Israel is like depriving the discipline of its soul.

Cline seems to agree – at least, he offers no criticism. Yet, in spite of the fact that I generally agree with him, I must say that this is simply nonsense. No one is talking about eliminating the Bible, which will always remain a valuable source of information. We are talking about defocusing – other questions are becoming equally important, and we should abandon a name that is obviously misleading. It is just like “Classical Archaeologists” becoming “Mediterranean Archaeologists”: they are no longer only interested in the classical tradition, but have a wider scope.

This is one of the few points of criticism. Another one is the way Cline writes about the archaeological campaigns in Jerusalem after the Six-Day War. He writes that “the subsequent demolition and construction projects in the city enabled Israeli archaeologists to make important discoveries as they excavated in areas that had previously been inaccessible to them”. I don’t know whether that’s a euphemism or doublespeak.

But this is about everything I have to be critical about. This is really a nice little book. In 156 pages, Cline offers an extremely useful and readable introduction to Syro-Palestinian Biblical Archaeology, which I can sincerely recommend.

An extremely useful epigraphical tool

3 October 2009
IRT 607

IRT 607

One of the most useful websites I know is the Epigraphik-Datenbank Clauss/Slaby (EDCS), maintained by the Katholische Universität Eichstätt-Ingolstadt. The English site is here. I use it nearly every day, and it rarely disappoints. These days, I am reorganizing my collection of photos, and it often helps me find the catalog numbers of the inscriptions.

Take, for instance, the photo to the right: an inscription from Lepcis Magna, which we photographed in 2006. There is no explanatory sign, but using the words “Lepcis Magna”, “Septimiae” and “splendidissimi”, it was easy to discover that this was inscription #607 of J.M. Reynolds & J.B. Ward Perkins, Inscriptions of Roman Tripolitania (1952 London). You will also find a photo of the inscription, which describes the setting up of a statue – the most expensive silver statue of Roman Africa, to be precise.

Some time ago, I used the EDCS to check which deities the ancients actually venerated. I obtained some remarkable results, which I would not have reached in so little time -one evening- if I had had to use those massive books of the Corpus Inscriptionum Latinarum – which I happen to love, but are less easy to use than the EDCS.

Spijkers op laag water

9 September 2009
Spijkers op laag water

Spijkers op laag water

Only once have I visited a drydock, but I immediately understood what the Dutch expression spijkers op laag water zoeken (“searching for nails in pools”) means. Standing on a scaffolding, some carpenters were preparing the hull of a yacht, and they had dozens of nails with them. When a nail fell to the ground, it was rather silly to go downstairs and look for it, if only because the nails usually dropped into pools and were invisible. I could imagine that one day, the dock’s manager checked those pools, took the nails, presented them to his workers, complained, and ignored that they had actually been able to finish a hull that day. Ever since that day, the carpenters must have said that someone was “searching for nails in pools” when he was focusing on minor errors.

I took this proverb as the title of my book on common errors, because I did not want to suggest that all mistakes were really serious. Two of my best friends believe that the title is wrong, because people will not understand  its  self-deprecating nature. My publisher and another friend believe that the irony will be understood, so in the end I agreed, although some nagging doubt remains.

And there is another doubt. Are the mistakes I am dealing with really that innocent? Many of them certainly are, but if professional scholars repeat them, addressing the problem is not searching for nails in pools, but saying that our academics have become too specialized to have a good view of the entire field.

Decapolis and Capitals

31 August 2009
The ruins of Scythopolis (Beth Shean, Israel)

The ruins of Scythopolis, one of the towns of the Decapolis

Continuing my series of articles on Jordan in Antiquity, I added two articles today: one about the Decapolis and one about capitals. The latter is meant as an addition to yesterday’s piece on the Nabataeans, who tried to stress their cultural autonomy by designing a building order of their own, that was not recognizably Greek. If I wanted to explain it, I needed to show photos of other capitals: the Doric, Ionic, Corinthian, and so on. For one reason or another, I enjoyed writing this piece of antiquarism.

The Decapolis was part of the original series of Jordanian articles. It was a group of towns in northern Jordan, northeastern Israel, and southwestern Syria. The name suggests that there were ten cities, but there were at least twelve, and at some point even eighteen members of the Decapolis. What they shared, was their (accepted) Greek legacy. This made them completely different from the Nabataeans, who rejected Hellenism.

The Decapolis is here and the capitals are here; and Bill made available a new text by Plutarch, On Tranquillity of the Mind.

Edom and Idumea

28 August 2009
Edom and its neighbors

Edom and its neighbors

Edom was one of the Iron Age states adjacent to the kingdom of Judah. It is already mentioned during the reign of pharaoh Merenptah (1213-1203); Edomite nomads were allowed to cross the Sinai and enter Egypt. It is better known, however, from the first centuries of the first millennium BCE, when it was sometimes subject, sometimes at peace, and sometimes at war with the Judaeans. The books of Samuel and Kings are important sources, and so are the Assyrian documents.

During the Babylonian Exile of the Jews, the Edomites conquered the southern part of Judah, perhaps expelled from their own country by the Nabataeans, who were, since the fourth century, certainly in control of the original homeland of the Edomites. The new country of the Edomites is usually called Idumea, and was forcibly converted to Judaism by the Hasmonaean leader John Hyrcanus (r.134-104).

More about Edom can be found on this new webpage.


26 August 2009
The Jabbok

The Jabbok

Continuing my series on the antiquities of Jordan, here’s the second piece: the Ammonites. According to Numbers, their relation to Israel and Judah was determined by a conflict in the Late Bronze Age, when Amorites took control of the east bank of the river Jordan and founded two small kingdoms in land traditionally occupied by the Ammonites. Moses’ wandering Hebrews expelled the Amorites, and the tribes of Rueben and Gad settled on the east bank, creating a casus belli for times to come. Jeptha, Saul, and David are all credited with victorious campaigns against the Ammonites.

My article is here, and the next piece will be about the Edomites.


25 August 2009
Moab and its neighbors

Moab and its neighbors

As I will be visiting Jordan pretty soon, I am reading a bit about the history of the Hashemite kingdom, and I will be adding articles to the website on its ancient history. First installment: Moab, an Iron Age kingdom directly east of the Dead Sea.

So far, not many texts have come to light from this area, but the Mesha Stela is quite interesting. As a political unit, Moab certainly existed in the Late Bronze age, and the Biblical book of Judges offers an interesting story about Moab’s king Eglon; more evidence for the history of Moab can be found in the books of Samuel and Kings. In the end, the kingdom shared the fate of Judah, Ammon, and Edom: after being vassal states of Assyria, they became subjects of Babylonia, Persia, and disappear from history in the Hellenistic age, when the Nabataeans became more powerful.

More about that later. The article on Moab is here.