Friday, July 25, 2008

BAR Highlights: 7/25/08

And even more archaeological news from Biblical Archaeology Review. I was particularly drawn to the first article, as my father and I were just discussing ancient synagogues this evening!

Beyond the Exodus: Jewish Synagogues in Ancient Egypt
July 24, 2008
When dealing with the relationship between Israelite and Egyptian history, most accounts concentrate on the arrival of the Israelites in Egypt and their dramatic exit out of it. But what archaeological evidence do we have of the lives of ancient Jews in Egypt? A recent article in the Jerusalem Post addresses this very question in light of two important but little-discussed archaeological sites.

Two ancient synagogues have been identified in Egypt within the last century. The first is an enigmatic story of a site lost, found, and then lost again. The second is a site whose existence has been hinted at to scholars since 1893, but which has only been confirmed within the last decade. Both are believed to have existed in the last half of the first millennium B.C. and offer an extremely rare glimpse into the Jewish communities in ancient Egypt.

In 1906, the famous British scholar Sir William Flinders Petrie announced to the academic community that he had located the site of the legendary Temple of Onias, which is mentioned in both the Talmud and by the first-century A.D. Jewish historian Josephus. According to historical texts, the temple of Onias would have been founded around 170 B.C. and was destroyed by the Romans in 73 A.D. Petrie claimed to have found the temple site on a mound that was attached to the city of Ramses III. He even created a model of the temple according to descriptions of the “towered fortress” described by Josephus, which was reportedly displayed at the University College in London. However, the shifting sands of time and desert alike have conspired to lose both the model and the site itself, neither of which have been relocated by modern scholars.

The second synagogue proved to take a bit longer to locate but less problematic for today’s scholars to document. Ancient papyri written in Aramaic first discovered at the end of the 19th century refer to an ancient Jewish community that lived for over 100 years on the island of Elephantine. The documents were discovered on Elephantine, an island that lies along the southern boundary of ancient Egypt, as well as at Aswan, the coastal town that lies just opposite Elephantine. As more and more papyri came to light, scholars throughout the 20th century were able to sketch a portrait of a community of ancient Jewish mercenaries that guarded the southern boundary of Egypt from the island of Elephantine, on which they built both their military base and their religious community—complete with synagogue.

Read the Jerusalem Post report on the Jewish temples in Egypt.

The Rorschach Test: What Was Qumran?

July 23, 2008
In the wake of an academic conference to mark the 60th anniversary of the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls, an extensive article in the Jerusalem Report revisits the question of the identity of Qumran, the settlement near where many of the Scrolls were found. Was it an Essene settlement, inhabited by celibate ascetics, a forerunner of monasteries? Can it be called the first kibbutz, as some have labeled it? The article reviews the many functions that have been attributed to site in addition to its being an Essene desert outpost: a fort, a trading post, a pottery factory. It also discusses extensively whether Qumran in ancient times was indeed home to celibate males and if the cemetery just outside the site contained the remains of women. There is also extensive discussion of the recently found text known as “Gabriel’s Vision,” which has been called “a Dead Sea Scroll in stone.” The article interviews Israel Knohl, a professor at Hebrew University in Jerusalem, who argues that “Gabriel’s Vision” contains a pre-Christian idea of a suffering, dying and resurrected messiah. Read the Jerusalem Report article on Qumran and the Dead Sea Scrolls.

You can also read about “Gabriel’s Vision” and study a transcription and translation of the text; you’ll also get a preview of an upcoming article in BAR by Israel Knohl that lays out his views on this intriguing tablet.

Two New Dead Sea Scrolls Fragments Published
July 22, 2008
James Charlesworth, a professor at Princeton Theological Seminary, has unveiled two previously unknown Biblical fragments on the Web site of the Institute for Judaism and Christian Origins. Both are said to have come from Cave 4 at Qumran, which has been called the mother lode of Scroll manuscripts. Charlesworth believes the first fragment belongs to the Samaritan Pentateuch, which would make it a rarity among the Scrolls. The text contains sections of Deuteronomy 27:4-6, which commands the Israelites to build an altar after they enter the Promised Land; the traditional text of the Hebrew Bible says the altar should be on Mount Ebal but this fragment orders it to be built on Mount Gerizim (the Samaritans considered Mount Gerizim to be holy and worshiped in a temple there rather than the one in Jerusalem).

The second fragment contains portions of Nehemiah 3:14-15 and is important because no passages from that Biblical book had been previously known from Qumran, though portions of Ezra had been found there (Ezra and Nehemiah are thought to have been originally a single work).

These fragments are also of interest because of the work of Bruce and Ken Zuckerman, two academics who specialize in photographic techniques to bring out letters not visible to the naked eye. You can see the dramatic difference their work makes on the fragments at: and

Ancient Sailing on Modern Seas
July 21, 2008
Visitors to coastal destinations in Western Europe next spring could see more than picturesque towns and those famous Mediterranean beaches. In fact, many tourists may well wonder if the wine they had the night before was perhaps a bit too strong as they see an ancient Phoenician ship sailing by, complete with an ancient Phoenician crew. If you happen to be one of these tourists, you needn't worry—you will simply be seeing the realization of Fadi Maalouf’s dream. The founder of the Lebanese non-profit organization Peace Missions is undertaking a unique voyage with the intention of highlighting Lebanon’s contribution to civilization.

In the spring of 2009, Maalouf intends to sail a carefully replicated Phoenician ship, which will be approximately 13m long and 4m wide, to seven European countries. Like the Phoenician ships of the ancient world, Maalouf’s Europa—named for the Phoenician princess kidnapped by the Zeus in Greek mythology—will have a horse’s head at the prow and a whale’s tale at the stern, and of course the “all-seeing eye” affixed to the prow in order to ward off ill-fortune. She will also boast a crew of 17 Lebanese volunteers, who will have to promise to live, work and dress like ancient Phoenicians during the 6-8 month voyage, even when they stop on land. In addition to being skilled sailors, Maalouf’s team will also have to be good actors. Each one will assume the identity of an ancient Phoenician historical figure, and will be responsible for representing that figure to people that they encounter during their voyage.

Read about the ancient Phoenician sailing ship in The Malta Independent.

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