Religion Today

Wednesday, April 13, 2016

The Handwriting on the Sherds

April 13, 2016 

A rather dry and technical scholarly article released Monday (April 11, 2016) about ancient handwriting generated breathless headlines this week. “Evidence on When the Bible Was Written,” wrote the New York Times. The opening sentence in The Washington Post’s article said, evidence suggests “that key biblical texts may have been composed earlier than what some scholars think.” “Bible Written Earlier Than Previously Believed?” asked The Christian Post.
The answer actually is no. The evidence belongs to a time period later than the time period other evidence has convinced most biblical scholars the biblical books of the Torah (Genesis to Deuteronomy) and the Former Prophets (Joshua to 2 Kings) were composed. Indeed, these biblical books could have been written a century or more earlier than this supposedly “new” evidence suggests. So, what is going on?
The article appeared in the respected American academic publication Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. In true scientific fashion, it lists nine co-authors. The leaders of the team are Israel Finkelstein and Eli Piasetzky from Tel Aviv University in Israel. Finkelstein is a well-known, widely respected yet controversial archaeologist. Always pushing the cutting edge of knowledge, he has made his reputation by asking difficult questions and then trying to answer them.
The question of this research is how widespread was literacy -- defined as the ability to write sentences containing instructions -- in ancient Judah. To give an initial answer, Finkelstein and his team looked at 16 ostraca, pieces of broken pottery that someone wrote upon. These were discovered several decades ago at Arad, a Judahite military fort in southern Judah and dated to the year 600 B.C.
The analysis was carried out by Piasetzky, a mathematician, and his team. They designed a computer algorithm for analyzing differences in handwriting that enabled them to determine when two documents were written by different authors. Applied to the 16 ostraca, they discovered that these texts, essentially requisitions for supplies, were composed by six different people.
The interesting result is that analysis of the content of these ostraca shows that some of the writers were low-level army officials, such as quartermasters and their assistants, rather than generals. The team concludes that this demonstrates that schools existed in ancient Judah, a conclusion for which there is a woeful lack of direct evidence. It also shows that access to education in these schools was widely available within the army.
The article’s odd claim is that these results show that certain books of the Bible, Deuteronomy and the books of the Former Prophets, were written earlier than scholars thought. The argument of Finkelstein and his team is that there is no comparable collection of inscriptions for the next 400 years. After these writings in 600 B.C., there is no large trove of inscriptions in Judea until 200 B.C. or so.
The argument is that these books must have been written by 600 because the handwriting analysis of these ostraca suggests widespread literacy by this time, and the lack of inscriptions prior to 200 B.C. indicates that they could not have been written after it.
That conclusion is great, and I am glad of the supporting evidence for early literacy. But, that is all it is -- supporting evidence.
Most of this was already known. In 2001, Ephraim Stern observed in his “Archaeology of the Land of the Bible” a study surveying what was known at the time: “One of the surprising results of the excavations of Judah in the 7th century BCE is the unusual amount of epigraphic material” (p. 169).
In other words, scholars have long known that in the century prior to 600, there was an explosion of writing in Judah. Along with inscriptions, there are graffiti, bureaucratic writings, letters, and weights and measures. And, don’t forget the thousands of bullae from Jerusalem and elsewhere. These lack writing, but constitute the impressions of seals that were used to seal up written letters for secure delivery.
This evidence matches how many historians understand the writing of these biblical works. The book of Deuteronomy, at least the law code found in chapters 12-26, was written or published in 622, during the reign of King Josiah. This was followed shortly thereafter by the composition of the Former Prophets, with only the last two chapters coming later. The latter dealt with Jerusalem’s fall to the Babylonians in 586 and events in the later exile.
So, rather than pushing back the earliest date of when biblical books were composed, the study by Finkelstein, Piasetzky and their team only help to firm up the tail of the dates in the already existing historical reconstruction.
Works consulted: Ephraim Stern, Archaeology of the Land of the Bible, vol. 2 New York: Doubleday, 2001. William Schniedewind, How the Bible Became a Book Cambridge: Cambridge, 2004.

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Good Friday in Jerusalem: Scenes from Three Religions

March 30, 2016 

Scene 1: The crowd begins to gather at the Lions’ Gate on the east side of Jerusalem's Old City. Outside of Sultan Suleiman's 16th century walls, people converse in many languages: Russian, Slovak, Italian, French, Arabic and English.
At the appointed time of 11:30 a.m., Catholic priests lead the crowd into the Old City and onto the Via Dolorosa -- the route that Jesus supposedly took from Pilate’s palace to his crucifixion on Golgotha. As the worshippers move through the narrow street, they sweep everyone before them. No one even attempts the opposite direction.
Scene 2: Shops line the Via Dolorosa. This lucrative route is designed for Christian pilgrims, whether they’re visiting on a holy day or not. They sell frankincense, myrrh, icons and rosaries, as well as antique religious items, woven rugs and jewelry. On most days, shopkeepers come out of their stores to entice passersby to enter. Today, walking the street an hour after the crowd has gone by, most shopkeepers do not appear. They have already had excellent sales!  
Scene 3: At each of the 13 stations of the cross, the crowd stops, and the priests conduct a short worship service. All movement on the street stops. No one can go anywhere. Everyone becomes a participant, whether that was their intent or not.
If you get claustrophobic in crowds and try to leave, you will discover that you are in a highly secure zone. The police have blocked off all streets connecting to the Via Dolorosa; no one can walk down them in either direction. The only way out is the way in.  
Scene 4: As the pilgrims enter the Church of the Holy Sepulcher and the street clears, a muezzin sounds the call for the Muslim Friday midday prayers. From all around, Muslim men appear, moving quickly eastward down the Via Dolorosa to the El-Aqsa mosque. After all, Friday is the Muslim holy day, and the other end of the street leads directly to this most sacred area.
Scene 5: An hour later, I sit in Jafar's Sweet Shop eating a plate of hot kanafi. Everyone knows, that in Jerusalem, Jafar’s is the best place for this cheese-based dessert with the crumbly red topping.
A middle-aged woman in a head scarf and a plain black kafia enters with her two 20-something sons. They walk over to the counter with the large round trays of hot sweets, debating what to have for their Friday desserts. They point, then a few deft slices cut by the salesman followed by some quick packaging, and they leave.  
An old man with grizzled hair sticking out from under a white skull cap waits at the sales register as they bag his purchase. His smile beams, encompassing the entire room, but his boyishly innocent eyes focus on one thing -- the bag of sweets being handed to him across the counter. He departs with his head erect and the smile still playing across his lips.
Scene 6: Outside the Old City, the flower store on Salah ed-Din Street is busy. A Mercedes is pulled up onto the sidewalk, a large spray of white flowers attached to its hood. Soon, it will be driven down the street to the bridal store, where the bride will walk down its broad steps, through the gate and into the car to be whisked off to her wedding.
Scene 7: In Judaism, this Friday is Purim, the topsy-turvy holiday, which last night highlighted readings of the biblical story of Esther, and today features crowds of children dressed in costumes. In West Jerusalem, a party atmosphere reigns -- as in a children’s birthday party. There are street musicians, clowns tying balloon animals, face painting and general joyous fun.
Scene 8: At Mary’s Tomb near the Garden of Gethsemane, a multitude of shoes nearly block the entrance. In Islam, Mary is the mother of one of their greatest prophets, namely Jesus. So, on this special day, a group of Muslim pilgrims visit her tomb, removing their shoes before entering, as they would at a mosque.
Scene 9: Today’s wanderings took me between West Jerusalem, East Jerusalem and the Old City. At the day’s end, I discover I traveled between two time zones. Daylight savings began Thursday night in West Jerusalem, but not in the other two areas. I saw the Purim parade at 10 a.m., and then Mary’s tomb at 9:30 that morning. Does anyone really know what time it is? What century?

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Proverbs and Creation

If someone were to ask us what the Bible says about creation, most of us would give one of two answers.
We might talk about Genesis 1 and mention how God created the world in seven days, beginning with nothing and gradually making the Earth, its creatures and plants, and, finally, humans. Or, we might refer to the story of Adam and Eve, where this newly created couple is placed in bliss into the Garden of Eden where they sin by eating the forbidden fruit. But, there is a third biblical description of creation that few of us remember: a story where God begins by creating a woman and then, with her help, goes on to make the rest of the cosmos.
What is this story, and where is it found? This picture of creation comes from the book of Proverbs. Most of the book contains pithy sayings, short but meaningful, such as: “If a man returns evil for good, evil will not depart from his house” (Proverbs 17:13). Or, “Hatred stirs up strife, but love covers all offenses” (Proverbs 10:12). Most of Proverbs’ 31 chapters consist of a list of such sayings. Some are organized by subject, but most seem to be just randomly placed one next to another. Despite the wisdom and thoughtfulness of individual proverbs, as a whole, the book is not exciting reading.
The main point of Proverbs is that people should become wise, they should pursue wisdom through study, and they should act and behave in a wise manner at all times. In the first nine chapters, this goal and its alternative of foolishness is personified by two women, Lady Wisdom and Dame Folly. Dame Folly acts like a prostitute to entice young men to her, while Lady Wisdom is presented as a pure and chaste wife to stand by one’s side and support one on the journey through life. 
But, suddenly, in Proverbs chapter 8, this opposition is dropped, and the story line opposing Wisdom and Folly is forgotten. Instead, Wisdom turns to the reader and speaks in first person. She begins by speaking of the importance and desirability of wisdom. “I, Wisdom, dwell in prudence, and I find knowledge and discretion … I have counsel and sound wisdom, I have insight, I have strength. By me kings reign, and rulers decree what is just” (Proverbs 8:12, 14).
But, then, Lady Wisdom changes the subject to creation and her place in it: “The Lord created me at the beginning of his work, the first of his acts of old. Ages ago I was set up, at the first, before the beginning of the earth. When there were no depths I was brought forth” (Proverbs 8:22-24). According to this passage, Wisdom was God’s first creation. If we were to fit this into the creation story of Genesis 1, this act would go prior to the opening verse; it goes before “The Beginning.”
But, Lady Wisdom is not just any created thing; she was God’s helper at creation. It is not just that “When he established the Heavens, I was there” (Proverbs 8:27). Instead, she was God’s assistant, “when he established the foundations of the deep … when he marked out the foundations of the earth, then I was beside him, like a master workman” (Proverbs 8:28-30).  And, then, as if this was not enough, Wisdom helps God enjoy the results of his work. “I was daily his delight, rejoicing before him always, rejoicing in his inhabited world and delighting in the sons of men” (Proverbs 8:31). 
Christians and Jews have understood Lady Wisdom in many different ways over the centuries. Their interpretations have ranged from literal to mystical, from analogies to symbols. But, it seems to me that the most important message here is to understand creation through Wisdom, rather than through fear and folly.

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