Friday, September 27, 2013

Ge'ez (Ethiopic) Flashcards

When you learn an ancient language like Greek or Hebrew you get spoiled by all of the different study helps and resources that are available.  For Greek I have two different sets of flashcards, laminated quick reference guides, multiple vocabulary guides, and electronic versions of primary texts.  But when you go on to learn ancient/medieval languages like Syriac or Ge'ez study helps are a little bit harder to come by.  That's why I'm excited to be able to share these Ge'ez flashcards I've put together.

  • The set includes over 700 individual flashcards
  • The flashcards are based on the vocabulary lists in Thomas Lambdin's introductory grammar
  • The words are printed in the Ge'ez script, rather than transliteration, so you can learn to recognize them the way you'll see them in actual texts
  • There is a separate card with the plural form(s) of each noun
  • The corner of each flashcard has a number that corresponds to the chapter in which it appears in Lambdin
  • The backs of the flashcards have the English glosses

There are some instructions in the PDF on how to print and assemble the flashcards.  I recognize that some may not want to go through the work of doing that themselves, so in the very near future I may start selling some finished sets through this website (price would probably be around $30 including shipping within the U.S.).  If that's something you would be interested in, let me know.

Thursday, September 26, 2013

Anabaptists and the Apocrypha: Quick Notes and Sample Passages

The so-called "Old Testament Apocrypha" are not only interesting because of the insights they give us into early Judaism, but also because of their complex and contested place in the history of the synagogue and church.  A little while back the adult Sunday school class at my Mennonite church spent a session chatting about the place of the Apocrypha in the Anabaptist tradition.  I'm posting the study guide here for anyone who might be interested in the reception of these texts in this particular Christian tradition.  To download, click:  "Anabaptists and the Apocrypha: Quick Notes and Sample Passages." 

If what you read in the study guide interests you, then definitely check out Jonathan Seiling's article, which the study guide draws on.

Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Thru the Torah in a Year

Simchat Torah takes place this week, which means that the Jewish annual Torah reading cycle is about to restart.  In Jewish tradition the Torah is divided up into 54 sections which are read throughout the course of a year.  Even if you're not Jewish you might consider spending a year tracking along with the weekly readings.  If you're a student of ancient literature, the Torah is an incredibly fascinating and engrossing anthology, and giving it a year of sustained study will be very rewarding.  If you've studied Hebrew the weekly Torah portion is a great way to keep your reading skills sharp.  If you're a Christian, the Torah/Pentateuch is the heart and soul of the Old Testament, and contains an interesting blend of texts that most of us are overly-familiar with (the Garden of Eden for instance) and texts that most of us have never touched (like just about all of Leviticus).  This means that reading the Torah through the year will give you the opportunity to see familiar texts with fresh eyes and encounter unfamiliar texts perhaps for the first time.  It's also a lot shorter than the "Bible in a year" reading programs many churches do.

Some resources you might find useful:

General Resources
Reading Schedule
This tells you what sections to read each week. Parsha Resources
Resources on the weekly portion. Torah Portion Resources
More weekly resources.

Torah from JTS
Torah commentary from the Jewish Theological Seminary

The Torah: A Beginner's Guide by Joel S. Kaminsky and Joel N. Lohr
This is a great basic overview of the Torah that gives attention to historical issues as well as the use and interpretation of the Torah in both the Jewish and Christian traditions.  Affordable and accessible.  

The Bible as it Was by James L. Kugel
I try to recommend this book or its more expansive brother as often as I can.  Kugel gives us insights into how the earliest interpreters of the Torah understood it.

Exploring the Old Testament: A Guide to the Pentateuch, by Gordon J. Wenham 
This is a good introductory textbook on the Pentateuch.

Monday, September 23, 2013

Jesus the Exorcist Study Guide

The adult Sunday school class at my church is currently studying Jesus in his Jewish context, with a particular emphasis on addressing anti-Judaism.  We are looking at four specific topics: Sabbath, exorcism, nonviolence, and social justice.  I thought I'd make some of the study guides we're using available online, in case someone might find them useful.  Click here to access the PDF on "Jesus the Exorcist."  The study guide has some general discussion and several excerpts from primary sources.  It does not explicitly address anti-Judaism in the way some of our other study sessions have, but does try to show that Jesus' ministry as an exorcist is another example of his continuity with his Jewish world.  

If addressing anti-Judaism in the church and scholarship is something that is interesting to you, then you might check out Amy-Jill Levine's The Misunderstood Jew.  You can also take a gander at our earlier post on "The Good Scribe" and the study guide on Jesus and Sabbath. 

Wednesday, September 18, 2013

Ancient Sukkot Passages: Zechariah, Jubilees, Maccabees, Plutarch, John, and Bar Kokhba

Tonight the Jewish holiday Sukkot, also known as the Feast of Booths or Tabernacles begins.  It is a rich and wonderful holiday that has its origins in the first temple period, and is one of the three pilgrimage festivals prescribed in the Torah:

And the LORD spoke to Moses, saying, “Speak to the people of Israel, saying, On the fifteenth day of this seventh month and for seven days is the Feast of Booths to the LORD.  On the first day shall be a holy convocation; you shall not do any ordinary work. For seven days you shall present food offerings to the LORD. On the eighth day you shall hold a holy convocation and present a food offering to the LORD. It is a solemn assembly; you shall not do any ordinary work. . . . . . On the fifteenth day of the seventh month, when you have gathered in the produce of the land, you shall celebrate the feast of the LORD seven days. On the first day shall be a solemn rest, and on the eighth day shall be a solemn rest.  And you shall take on the first day the fruit of splendid trees, branches of palm trees and boughs of leafy trees and willows of the brook, and you shall rejoice before the LORD your God seven days. You shall celebrate it as a feast to the LORD for seven days in the year. It is a statute forever throughout your generations; you shall celebrate it in the seventh month. You shall dwell in booths for seven days. All native Israelites shall dwell in booths, that your generations may know that I made the people of Israel dwell in booths when I brought them out of the land of Egypt: I am the LORD your God.” (Leviticus 23:34-36, 39-43; Cf. Exodus 23:16, Numbers 29:12-38 and Deuteronomy 16:13-15)
Like some other biblical festivals, Sukkot has both an agricultural and an historical meaning.  Agriculturally, it is a harvest festival, but historically it commemorates the time Israel spent in the wilderness.  Sukkot is quite significant in the Bible, where it is known simply as "the festival of the LORD" or even just "the festival."  It continued to be an important holiday throughout the 2nd Temple period and beyond.  Here are a few interesting passages on Sukkot from that time (and a little bit afterwards):

Sukkot and the Nations
Then everyone who survives of all the nations that have come against Jerusalem shall go up year after year to worship the King, the LORD of hosts, and to keep the Feast of Booths.  And if any of the families of the earth do not go up to Jerusalem to worship the King, the LORD of hosts, there will be no rain on them. And if the family of Egypt does not go up and present themselves, then on them there shall be no rain; there shall be the plague with which the LORD afflicts the nations that do not go up to keep the Feast of Booths. This shall be the punishment to Egypt and the punishment to all the nations that do not go up to keep the Feast of Booths. (Zechariah 14:16-19)
The post-exilic prophet Zechariah includes Sukkot in his eschatological vision.  For Zechariah, Sukkot will one day include not only Israel but also the nations, who will make an annual pilgrimage to Jerusalem to observe the feast.  If they do not, they will experience drought (Sukkot is connected not only with harvest but also prayer for rain in the coming growing season).  The Talmud also mentions the significance of Sukkot for the nations, by identifying the 70 bulls sacrificed as representing each of the 70 nations (b.Sukkot 55b).  The Talmud also predicts that God will give the Gentiles an opportunity to prove that they are willing to obey the Torah by asking them to observe Sukkot.  However, when God sends hot weather the Gentiles will give up and kick their booths.   

Monday, September 16, 2013

Ancient TV: Live Long and Prosper

Have you ever wondered about the origins of the Vulcan salute in Star Trek?  I think it's well known to many Trekkies that Leonard Nimoy based the iconic hand gesture on a Jewish ritual he witnessed as a child.  In some streams of contemporary Judaism the descendants of the ancient priestly class offer the priestly blessing from Numbers 6:24-26:

The LORD bless you and keep you
The LORD make his face to shine upon you, and be gracious to you
The LORD lift up his countenance upon you, and give you peace.

In Numbers YHWH commands Moses to tell Aaron and his sons to bless the people of Israel with these beautiful words.  (Fun fact: the first line of the blessing has three words in the Hebrew, the second line has five words, and the third line has seven words, giving the sense of the blessing expanding as it progresses).  Numbers 6 does not prescribe any accompanying physical gestures or rituals, but as the blessing has been practiced throughout history a number of traditions have been associated with it, many of which are based on other passages in the Hebrew Bible.  One of these is the raising of the hands, a practice that the Talmud supports by referring to Leviticus 9:22 where Aaron lifts his hands when he blesses the people.  We see evidence that the priest raised his hands when blessing the nation in the 2nd Temple period as well:
"Then Simon came down and raised his hands over the whole congregation of Israelites, to pronounce the blessing of the Lord with his lips, and to glory in his name; and they bowed down in worship a second time, to receive the blessing from the Most High." (Sirach 50:20-21)     
So what does any of this have to do with Spock?  

Saturday, September 14, 2013

Jesus and Sabbath Study Guide

The adult Sunday school class at my church is currently studying Jesus in his Jewish context, with a particular emphasis on addressing anti-Judaism.  We are looking at four specific topics: Sabbath, exorcism, nonviolence, and social justice.  I thought I'd make some of the study guides we're using available online, in case someone might find them useful.  Click here to access the PDF on "Jesus and the Sabbath."  The study guide has some general discussion and several excerpts from primary Jewish sources on the Sabbath.  If addressing anti-Judaism in the church and scholarship is something that is interesting to you, then you might check out Amy-Jill Levine's The Misunderstood Jew.  You can also take a gander at our earlier post on "The Good Scribe."

Thursday, September 12, 2013

When Blood Cries: Abel and the Appeals of the Dead

I've been waiting a long time to work a Prince allusion into a blog title.  You might recall from Sunday school that after Cain kills his brother in the book of Genesis he decides to play dumb. Unfortunately for him, YHWH finds out about the crime, and confronts him during their little post-murder interrogation: "What have you done? The voice of your brother’s blood is crying to me from the ground." (Gen 4:10)  

One of the fascinating things about the history of interpretation is that one little verse can give rise to a rich and varied tradition.  When we look at later Jewish and Christian literature we see that YHWH's claim that Abel's blood cried out from the ground inspired some sacred speculation about Abel and the postmortem cries of the murdered and the martyred.  For instance, in 1st Enoch 22 the antediluvian visionary Enoch gets a tour of the abode of the dead by an angelic docent.  While there are some difficulties with the text as we have it, the gist is this: the souls of the dead are being kept in hollows/caves carved into a mountain in the west.  Unlike popular Protestant conceptions of the afterlife, the souls of the dead are not divided into two realms with the righteous souls ascending to heaven and the unrighteous descending to hell.  Instead, all souls go to the same non-heavenly realm where they are placed into four (or three?) bins for safekeeping until judgment day.  When traveling towards judgment you can fly first class, business class, coach, or be neatly stowed in the baggage compartment.  Kensky compares this intermediate state to a jail, where prisoners are kept during trial, which is different from prison where they get sent after sentencing (the final judgment).  

While surveying the mountain Enoch notices something interesting, which he asks Raphael to explain for him:
"There I saw the spirit of a dead man making suit, and his lamentation went up to heaven and cried and made suit.  Then I asked Raphael, the watcher and holy one who was with me, and said to him, 'The Spirit that makes suit -- whose is it -- that thus his lamentation goes up and makes suit unto heaven?'  And he answered me and said, 'This is the spirit that went forth from Abel, whom Cain his brother murdered.  And Abel makes accusation against him until his posterity perishes from the face of the earth, and his posterity is obliterated from the posterity of men." (22:5-7)

Saturday, September 7, 2013

The Good Scribe: a Corrective to Anti-Jewish Readings of the Gospels?

Most of us are probably familiar with Jesus' "good Samaritan," but what about the "good scribe"?  The adult Sunday school class at my church is currently studying Jesus in his Jewish context and attempting to understand and appreciate Jesus without turning early Judaism into a negative foil.  Anti-Jewish readings of the gospels have become so engrained in our culture, both within and outside of the church, that we have to be quite intentional about re-reading these texts with sensitivity to anti-Judaism.  This goes for both devotional and secular readers, laypersons and scholars.  One aspect of this re-reading is identifying and exploring the Jewish characters that get good press in the gospels.  That of course includes Jesus and his followers (when they're not being portrayed as blockheads), who are Jewish characters, but it also includes those figures who do not seem to be part of the Jesus movement.   

One of these characters is Mark's "good scribe."  As a rule, the scribes do not get very good press in Mark.  The authority of Jesus' teaching is contrasted with theirs (1:22), they accuse Jesus of blasphemy (2:6-7), challenge Jesus' eating partners (2:16), accuse him of demon possession (3:22), question his disciples' pre-meal hygiene (7:5), and reject and conspire to kill him (8:31, 10:33, 11:18, 14:1, 14:43).  They also argue with the disciples (9:14), question the source of Jesus' authority (11:28), and mock him.  Jesus even warns people to beware of the scribes (12:38).  Of course some of these passages do not need to be read negatively.  Asking about the source of Jesus' authority (11:28) is a perfectly legitimate question, and arguing/deliberating can be a very good thing (9:14; perhaps they were trading exorcism tips, given the context?).  It's clear though that some of these passages try to paint scribes as the "bad guys."  That's why it is so interesting that near the end of Mark's 12th chapter we find an encounter between Jesus and what we might call a "good scribe."  This occurs at the end of a series of interlocutors (I sometimes envision a queue forming) who represent different groups.  First it's the Pharisees and Herodians asking about taxes.  Then it's the Sadducees asking about widows and resurrection.  And finally, its a scribe: 
"And one of the scribes came up and heard them disputing with one another, and seeing that he answered them well, asked him, “Which commandment is the first of all?”  
Jesus answered, “The first is, ‘Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one; and you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength.’ The second is this, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no other commandment greater than these.”  
And the scribe said to him, “You are right, Teacher; you have truly said that he is one, and there is no other but he; and to love him with all the heart, and with all the understanding, and with all the strength, and to love one’s neighbor as oneself, is much more than all whole burnt offerings and sacrifices.” 
And when Jesus saw that he answered wisely, he said to him, “You are not far from the kingdom of God.” And after that no one dared to ask him any question. (12:28-34)

Two Thumbs Down: Biting Literary Criticism in Dionysius of Halicarnassus

I always cringe when I read harsh and mean-spirited reviews of someone's literary or academic work.  Hiding behind a pen (or keyboard . . . or touchscreen) seems to give some people the courage to say nasty things that most of us would never say to someone's face.  Like most human phenomena, biting reviews are nothing new.  I was recently reading Dionysius of Halicarnassus' criticism of Hegesias of Magnesia.  Check out his not-so-friendly review:
"Those authors who have not paid attention to this part of their craft (rhythm) have produced writings which are either mean or diffuse, or have some other deformity or disfigurement.  The first, middlemost and last in this is that sophist from Magnesia, Hegesias.  Concerning him, by Zeus and all the other gods, I do not know what I should say.  Was he so insensitive and dense that he could not envisage which the ignoble or the noble rhythms are?  Or was he so bedevilled and mentally deranged that he still chose the worse, though he knew the better?  I am inclined to believe the latter: for it is a characteristic of ignorance that it often lands on its feet, wilfulness never does.  At any rate, in the large volume of writing which the man has left behind him, you could not find a single page that has been felicitously composed.  Indeed, he seems to have supposed that his way of writing is superior to that of his predecessors, and to have practised it with enthusiasm; yet any man of sense who fell into such errors under the stress of impromptu speech would feel ashamed." (De Compositione Verborum, 18)
Dionysius goes on to quote an excerpt from Hegesias on Alexander the Great and then compare it unfavorably with a similar episode from Homer's Iliad.  He closes with this last jab at Hegesias:
". . . the manner of description used by the Magnesian could be adopted only by women or emasculated men, and not seriously even by them, but in a spirit of mockery or ridicule.  What then is the cause of the nobility of these lines (from Homer), and of the miserable inadequacy of the other drivel?  The main cause, if not the only one, is the difference in the rhythms.  In the passage of Homer there is not a single undignified or undistinguished line, whereas in that from Hegesias not a single sentence will fail to give offence." 
(De Compositione Verborum, 18)
W. Rhys Roberts identifies the use of double trochees as the primary offense that made Dionysius' poetic blood boil.  Let that be a lesson to you: watch your trochees.  Hegesias of Magnesia is typically considered the founder of the Asianic style. 

Dionysius was not alone in his criticisms of poor Hegesias.  Cicero also had a few unkind words of his own:
"Hegesias . . . was so vain of his own taste for Atticism, that he considered his predecessors, who were really masters of it, as mere rustics in comparison of himself.  But what can be more insipid, more frivolous, or more puerile, than that very concinnity of expression which he actually acquired?" (Brutus 83)
If something you write ever gets an unfavourable review or grade, just remind yourself of these passages.  As long as your work is not being called "drivel" or "miserably inadequate" then you're still ahead of old Hegesias.

You can read up a bit on Hegesias here and here.

Wednesday, September 4, 2013

Second Temple Rosh Hashanah Passages

Horns, honey-dipped apples, and some rest -- does it get any better than that?  Tonight Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, begins.  While it does not seem to have taken on its current name or some of its traditional meanings until the Rabbinic period, it has roots in the Hebrew Bible and 2nd Temple Judaism when it was sometimes called "the Day of Memorial" or "the Feast of Trumpets."  These names were drawn from the Torah, where the Israelites are commanded to observe a memorial day of rest and sacrifice that is proclaimed with trumpet blasts:

“And the LORD said to Moses, ‘Say to the people of Israel, In the seventh month, on the first day of the month, you shall observe a day of solemn rest, a memorial proclaimed with blast of trumpets, a holy convocation. You shall do no laborious work; and you shall present an offering by fire to the LORD.’” (Lev 23:23-25; see also Numbers 29:1-6 for another description of the festival and Nehemiah 8 for the reading of the Law on the first of the seventh month)

What exactly is supposed to be remembered isn't stated in the text, and in the ancient Jewish tradition we find a variety of things that come to be associated with the day.  This includes the giving of the Law on Sinai, peace, Abraham's calling, the draining of the waters from the Flood, God's judgment, and creation.  Below are a few of the texts that mention the first day of the seventh month in the 2nd Temple period.

The Jewish philosopher Philo identified two different elements of this "feast of trumpets," a Jewish national significance and a common, universal significance.  The practice of sounding trumpets was intended to recall the trumpet blast at Sinai, a significance peculiar to the Jewish nation (though the reach and implications of the law was not constrained to them alone).  It's universal significance is based on the trumpets' use as an instrument of warfare, which is meant to remind people that God is the giver of peace in the human and non-human realms. 
"THE EIGHTH FESTIVAL: Immediately after comes the festival of the sacred moon; in which it is the custom to play the trumpet in the temple at the same moment that the sacrifices are offered. From which practice this is called the true feast of trumpets, and there are two reasons for it, one peculiar to the nation, and the other common to all mankind. Peculiar to the nation, as being a commemoration of that most marvellous, wonderful, and miraculous event that took place when the holy oracles of the law were given; for then the voice of a trumpet sounded from heaven, which it is natural to suppose reached to the very extremities of the universe, so that so wondrous a sound attracted all who were present, making them consider, as it is probable, that such mighty events were signs betokening some great things to be accomplished. And what more great or more beneficial thing could come to men than laws affecting the whole race?And what was common to all mankind was this: the trumpet is the instrument of war, sounding both when commanding the charge and the retreat. ... There is also another kind of war, ordained of God, when nature is at variance with itself, its different parts attacking one another. And by both these kinds of war the things on earth are injured. They are injured by the enemies, by the cutting down of trees, and by conflagrations; and also by natural injuries, such as droughts, heavy rains, lightning from heaven, snow and cold; the usual harmony of the seasons of the year being transformed into a want of all concord. On this account it is that the law has given this festival the name of a warlike instrument, in order to show the proper gratitude to God as the giver of peace, who has abolished all seditions in cities, and in all parts of the universe, and has produced plenty and prosperity, not allowing a single spark that could tend to the destruction of the crops to be kindled into flame. (Philo, The Special Laws, 2:188-192)