West and Southern Baptists

Dr Southern Baptist Convention the famous blogger, biblical minimalist, pastor and insomniac

The Southern Baptist Convention is apparently considering a name change. Jim West is upset (about this, as he is about so many other things). He’s thinking himself  that he’d “like to follow suit and consider a name-change for myself “.

I have a great suggestion:

How about changing your name to “Southern Baptist Convention” the first name echoes your existing surname, the second reflects your adherence, and Convention reminds us that names are merely convenient conventions :)

And besides, that way we’ll still have a Southern Baptist Convention to moan about even after the existing one is gone West ;)

Encyclopedia of Hebrew terms for tools

What a great resource, and free online instead of expensive dead trees from Brill :)

The כלי Database: Utensils in the Hebrew Bible from Het Oudtestamentisch Werkgezelschap (the Dutch and Flemish society of Old Testament scholars) looks really excellent a great source of information on all those awkward terms that refer to various sorts of tool or implement. Unfortunately the first term I looked up מִזְרָק from Am 6:6 does not appear to have been entered yet :( but the list is already impressively long.

The format is a series of PDF files, which allows the appearance to be controlled, but makes usage somewhat less easy and reuse much less easy compared to XML and CSS, but it will have made production easier :) It is sad that there are few or no illustrations. At a time when images are getting easier to find and permission to use more likely to be freely given. However, entries have a section pointing readers to illustrations in reference works in their library.

In short this seems a really useful tool, and one we can be grateful they are publishing in such an open fashion. It also offers an interesting set of compromises between traditional forms and the new medium. It will be fascinating to see over coming decades how many and which such compromises continue to be made, representing what is culturally important about print. For example in this case the physical layout of print with page and line breaks was deemed significant.

HT: Jim West

The Bible’s Buried Secrets: Did God have a wife?

Image from a pot found at Kuntillet Ajrud above the inscription mentioning "Yahweh of Samaria and his Asherah" (from Wikipedia)

I’ve not been posting much here recently because I’m horribly busy, but also because I’ve been podcasting like mad around topics related to the BBC program The Bible’s Buried Secrets well actually we don’t get to see quality programming like that down here, so it was more in response to ideas raised by the Daily Mail puff piece “Why the BBC’s new face of religion believes God had a WIFE

If you are interested inWhy do you read? Or: Was God married? and Are you an idolater? (Not – Was God married? Part Two) I claim Yahweh definitely had a wife indeed the evidence comes mainly from little-read parts of the Old Testament. In this morning’s podcast Was God married? Part two: the death of the goddess I try to begin answering the question left open at the end of Stavrakopoulou Mail piece:

I can’t help but wonder what the world would be like had the goddess remained.

Tomorrow’s podcast promises more on Yahweh as female :) But more about that tomorrow ;)

Spammed by Biblical Archaeology Review

I won’t link to their site, but if you are interested you know the URL. Love it or hate it BAR is a significant commercial enterprise interested in the archaeology of the Ancient Near East, and in the days before Flickr I benefited from their photo sets for teaching. But when someone identified as:

Author : Sara Murphy (IP: ,
E-mail : smurphy@bib-arch.org

posts a lengthy advertising piece with two links to their site on my “About” page (Do I even have an about page? Let alone one that mentions “Biblical” archaeology?) I see red! This is spam, and I’ve labeled it as such. If you use WordPress and they spam you please mark it as Spam, that way the innocent may be protected by Akismet from giving nearly free advertising to BAR.

PS: I have also written to Ms Murphy suggesting that her employer may not appreciate being labeled as a spammer. I will post any reply here.

Divine kings in “Israel”?

Shapur II investiture at Taq-e Bustan: the "God Mithra emerges from a Lotus flower, crowned by a lightning sun, holding the Barsum (wood bundle symbol of divine power). At the right side, god Ahuramazda wearing his classical crenellated crown gives the king the Farshiang ( ribboned ring symbol of royal power). ... their heads are on the same level suggesting the king is equal to gods.

It’s all Steve’s fault, though all he seems to have intended (by his post at Sects and Violence in the Ancient World) was to start a fine old argument about ancient space aliens and pyramids ;) But then Duane took it up and threw an interesting (Naturally and abnormally interesting one ;) )) spanner, into the works, asking how Christian talk of Jesus as divine impacts our reading of talk of divine kingship in the ANE.

But it is Jim Getz’ Musings on Divine Kingship that really got me thinking.1 After an all-too brief tour of the ANE, and some highly pertinent remarks on the small and insignificant nature of whatever “Israel” actually was at the time, he wrote:

There are hints of divine kingship in the Bible. Psalm 2 is the premiere example, but others could be cited as well. However, these data are always somewhat cryptic. Surely the Deuteronomists saw the king’s role in the cult highly conscribed. Both P and H pass over the king in silence. The writer of Ezekiel 40-48 envisions an extremely limited role for rulers in his eschatological temple. Does this indicate a reevaluation of the king’s divine status in light of the realities of foreign hegemony, or does it hearken back to ideas found in Ugaritic texts?

I wonder, is this all? There are admittedly few ascriptions of divinity, or even permanent sacral status, to kings in the Hebrew Scriptures (though Psalm 110, especially in the light of its use in Hebrews, is an interesting addition to his list), but there are more passages that directly or indirectly protest against or undermine such claims. Ezek 28 is the most obvious example, though of course one might claim that the wrongness of the prince of Tyre’s aretalogy2 consists (in part) in the fact that he had no “real” claim to be an emperor. And yet, since I am teaching Gen 2-3 currently, I have to admit that I wonder how far the burlesque elements of that narrative are crafted to subvert such claims. And if it was then surely the claims being subverted must have been nearer to the writer than the prince of Tyre?

The lady [or at least Scripture] doth protest too much, methinks.”

  1. As opposed to merely listening with interest. []
  2. First person text, usually a poem, in which a deity lists their attributes and titles, the Isis aretalogies have been compared to the self-presentations of Lady Wisdom in the Hebrew Scriptures. []

The prophecies of Neferti

I’ve finally got to read James Linville‘s Amos and the Cosmic Imagination

[amtap book:isbn=0754654818]

I know it was published back in ’08, but books (especially expensive European books take a while to get to our library down here ;)

The book itself is stimulating, not least because he seems to be starting in the right place i.e. assuming that Amos is something like a work of historical fiction written sometime in the Persian or Hellenistic period, and without making too much fuss about the textual archaeology that seems so often to render studies of the prophetic corpus dull and insipid, he takes the reader (at least in the first chapter or two) on a journey of imagination into reading this work.

The pyramid of Snefru (photo by Charlie Phillips)

However, that’s not what I want to write about here, in an almost passing comment he refers to the Prophecies of Neferti an Egyptian work that I’ve not paid much attention to. It really is fascinating stuff, well at least to me, set back in the days of Snefru some four or five hundred years in the (presumed) writer’s past it tells of a prophetic speech, delivered to the ancient king by a sage. The contents are much like a biblical prophetic book, though with the narrative frame in place of a superscription. So, already a sort of paradigmatic prophetic fiction from the 20th century (BCE), but beyond or as well as that there are loads of phrases and images that resonate with Amos…

Now, how can I work all this together to make a paper on either Complaint or Isaiah and Empire, since I need material for abstracts on those topics fast!?

The Invention of Hebrew: Conclusion

The concluding chapter is short, and to the point. It’s a rattling good read, not only nicely summing up the more exciting ideas that have been presented and argued in the preceding chapters, but also pulling them together into a more coherent whole.

Like most good conclusions there is a tendency to over-simplify, so probably the history of history is more complex than the presentation of Foucault’s Jerusalem/Rome typology suggests, but isn’t it a stimulating way of approaching the issues!

There is also much to think about, and develop in so many ways in the presentations of the history of Hebrew literature from Iron Age epigraphy to Hebrew Scripture. Not least here the place given to prophets like Moses ;) Through it all, and not only in the material summarised in the final section, the interest in the political face of texts is deftly woven.

My conclusions (having read the “Conclusion”)

This is a book I will recommend, time and again, and probably refer to again and again. It could easily also be a book that launches a thousand (or at least quite a lot of) articles, there are so many thought provoking ideas and superb one-liners.

The Invention of Hebrew: Chapter 4: The Invention of Hebrew in Iron Age Israel

Chapter 4 discusses matters of most direct concern to biblical scholars (as such). It contains a wealth of material to bring non-specialists (like me) more up to date on Hebrew and other North West Semitic epigraphy from the Iron age.

The Mesad Hashavyahu ostracon presents a field worker's complaint in writing about the confiscation of his cloak. Tracing image from Wikimedia.

There are continually intriguing glimpses of this ancient world and its adopting, and adapting, of a different communications technology. One of the both at the same time most, and also least, surprising details are the parallels between ancient Greek adoption of the alphabet, where early literacy concerned exclusively drinking, dance and sex, and the early adoption of the Internet ;) Noticing this has a serious outcome, to demonstrate that alphabetic literacy did not need scribal schools to flourish. Likewise digital literacy in our day owes little if anything to the formal education system (beyond the basic “learning to read”). This suggests that the lack of evidence of Iron Age scribal schools in Palestine is not sufficient evidence for lack of literacy. Indeed texts like Lashish 3, in which a military commander resents his superior’s asssumption that he may not be able to read and write himself, and the Mesad Hashavyahu ostracon which, although we assume it was not written by the field worker, demonstrates his access to and use of the medium.

This chapter contains fascinating information, and also intriguing claims these are often closely argued. For example the important section which seeks to show deliberate standardisation of Hebrew script in the eighth to sixth centuries, and that this standardised system both crossed the boundaries of the (expected on the basis of biblical accounts) northern and southern kingdoms but also stopped at their boundaries. There are however somtimes annoying jumps in the argument, so although Sanders aims to base his discussion on the epigraphic evidence rather than on the accounts in the biblical texts (where our earliest copies come from a long time after the period being discussed, so offering questionable evidence) he seems to assume two Hebrew kingdoms, rather than discover them. Likewise on p.124:

If written Aramaic and Moabite were created in competition with an emerging standard form of Hebrew, then they re indirect evidence for the invention of written Hebrew in the late ninth century.

I think the argument is circular, since I do not remember evidence being presented to suggest that these other script/languages were indeed created “in competition” with Hebrew.  So, for example the Mesha inscription predates the examples of “Standardized Hebrew”.

For me one of the most interesting aspects of this chapter was the focus on prophetic texts, and on the light epigraphic evidence throws on the possible processes of composition and transmission of such texts. Here both the Deir’ Alla inscription, Hebrew ostraca and the Bronze Age materials from Mari are all woven into a coherent account of how such written prophecy worked among West Semitic peoples, and how this written prophecy changed over time. This is really exciting!

When talking about biblical prophecy (in particular Isaiah 10:5-15) he takes Machinist’s interpretation of the passage as a neat reversal of Assyrian royal propaganda, and includes the evocative phrase: “a new double speaker: the prophet and the god he ventriloquizes” which both expresses the idea and provokes further thought about what is being said. This is typical of flashes if insight communicated in vivid language that are found everywhere and enliven what risks becoming a sometimes technical discussion.

He argues that texts like this, from Isaiah, depend upon the langauage and genres of Neo-Assyrian royal propaganda, and that such propaganda was lost with the rise of Babylon replacing Nineveh as the imperial centre (a claim I would have liked to see backed by evidence). If that is so then these biblical texts must originate from an Assyrian dominated historical context, and not a later one.

One of the key points of this chapter, could have done with being brought more sharply into focus, and discussed at greater length. For the claim that invention of Hebrew was intimately bound up with the invention (or recognition) of a responsive (and in some ways authoritative?) audience, a “you” addressed by the texts, is highly significant for understanding the texts handed to us as Bible. This is also important because this claim is central to demonstrating the thesis of the chapter. From signs like this I get the impression that a bigger, less easy to read, monograph stands somewhere behind the book I am reading. Perhaps rather these more detailed arguments are made in Sanders work published in more specialised places.

The Invention of Hebrew: Chapter 3: Empires and Alphabets

Letter from Abdi-Hepa (ruler of Jesusalem) to Amenophis III in syllabic cuneiform Canaano-Akkadian

My reading of this chapter was rather interrupted. It has taken me weeks, which is a shame as this is the material which most interests me :( The off/on schedule was partly caused by “life”, but partly I think because I could have done with revising a noddy guide to writing in the late Bronze to early Iron Ages before reading it. (This is not Seth’s fault, he provides a clear and full but also brief summary as he goes along, the fault was mine reading in installments with enough gap to forget between – I’ll have to reread the chapter in one sitting some day :)

Basically the argument is that in this period the different formas of writing were used in different ways by different people. The empires and their local agents using cuneiform syllabic writing, (at least some/one) local power(s) using alphabetic cuneiform and the marginalised using a linear alphabetic script (pretty much what we think of when we say alphabet signs scratched or drawn rather than impressed like cuneiform). The linear script was almost only used to label things or places, there are no letters or literary texts from this period, and the training “texts” are simply practice alphabets. By contrast there is evidence of training of scribes in cuneiform.

Wadi el-Hol alphabetic writing from Bruce Zuckermann in collaboration with Lynn Swartz Dodd "Pots and Alphabets: Refractions of Reflections on Typological Method" (MAARAV, A Journal for the Study of the Northwest Semitic Languages and Literatures, Vol. 10, p. 89)

He also argues that neither writing system represented a “language”. Canaano-akkadian was a system allowing the transmission of messages between specialists who probably translated in turning the message from writing to speech, it was not anyone’s spoken language.  At the other end the alphabet was used to name things, so in a different way does not really represent a language. Ugarit was the main exception known to us, there cuneiform was used to communicate a local language in alphabetic form, this was a conscious mimicing and alternative to the langauge forms of empire. It flourished at a time when both Mesopotamian and Egyptian powers were weak.

This is fascinating stuff, especially when (as he promises to do in the next chapter) you put it together with his thesis about the different political cultures related to these linguistic and technological expressions.

I do hope I haven’t mangled this chapter’s argument too badly. I half wonder if I should read it properly before posting this, but (a) I MUST finish the Amos article and (b) I want to read the next chapter (this is a page-turner) and (c) I am trying to podcast reflections on the E100 at a rate of 2 per day, so that when my sabbatical ends I’ll have a stockpile to see me through the lean weeks while I am teaching ;)

So… if you have read ch.3, and think I’ve got it wrong, please comment so I can correct this post and not mislead people!

Five years of progress in machine translation

People who write on the web have an interest in machine translation. If it worked communication could suddenly become much more international. Five years ago yesterday I wrote a post about the state of the art.

Of course, machine translation is still a developing technology, somewhere about the level of voice recognition 10 years ago is my estimate. As a test of the new service I supplied a paragraph chosen pretty much at random from the Amos commentary, the first from a page about city gates:

In the Ancient Near East city gates were neither merely entrances, nor only used for military protection. As a potentially weak point in the defenses, the gates of Israelite walled cities typically had three chambers giving four sets of “doors” and defended spaces between. The gates of Hazor (left – plan above) and Gezer from the time of Solomon show this triple construction.

This gave the almost comprehensible French:

Dans la ville antique du proche Orient les portes n’étaient ni simplement des entrées, ni seulement utilisé pour la protection militaire. Comme point potentiellement faible dans les défenses, les portes d’Israelite ont muré des villes ont typiquement eu trois chambres donner quatre ensembles d'”portes” et d’espaces défendus entre. Les portes de Hazor (laissé – projetez ci-dessus) et de Gezer dès l’exposition de Solomon cette construction triple.

The Iron Age gate at Hazor

The Iron Age gate at Hazor

Either Google translate is more than five years behind that crowd, or the art has gone backwards in the last half decade, here’s Google’s 2010 rendering of the same text:

Dans l’ancienne ville près des portes-Orient ne sont ni seulement les entrées, ni seulement utilisés pour la protection militaire. Comme un point de faiblesse potentielle dans la défense, aux portes des villes d’Israël paroi généralement avait trois chambres donnant quatre séries de “portes” et défendu les espaces entre les deux. Les portes de Hatsor (à gauche – plan ci-dessus) et Gezer du temps de Salomon montrer cette construction triple.

Hmm… well let’s follow the same methodology, now from “French” into German:

In der alten Stadt in der Nähe des East Türen sind nicht nur Eingänge oder nur für den militärischen Schutz. Als Ausgangspunkt der mögliche Schwäche in der Verteidigung vor den Toren der ummauerten Städte Israels in der Regel hatte drei Zimmer gibt vier Gruppen von “Türen” und verteidigte die Zwischenräume. Die Tore von Hazor (links – über Plan) und Gezer Zeit Salomos zeigen, dass der Bau verdreifachen.

Which of course means (in “English”):

In the old city near the East doors are not only inputs or only military for protection. As a point of potential weakness in the defense at the gates of the walled cities of Israel usually had three rooms are four categories of “doors” and defended the gaps. The gates of Hazor (left – show on plan) and Gezer time of Solomon, that tripled the building.

Sadly we still have some way to go,  though, the back translation has actually improved! This was the original version:

In for the military protection antiken of the Near East the doors were neither simple from the entrances nor only use city. When potentially weak point in the defenses the doors have typically three chambers immured of Israelite of cities had to give four whole of “doors” and from areas to which were defended, between. The doors of Hazor (calmly – above you plan) and of Gezer of the exhibition of Solomon to this three-way construction.

Maybe in another five years we’ll have a usable machine translator at our fingertips, and the World Wide Web will really be starting to become world-wide, in the meantime the majority of the world’s population will continue to learn English, providing jobs for Kiwis on their great OE  ;)