Friday, November 28, 2014
Thursday, September 3, 2009
The Vision of Gabriel and Messiah in Mainstream Judaism and in Christinaity: Textual, Philological, and Theological Comments
JUDAISM AND IN CHRISTIANITY: TEXTUAL,
PHILOLOGICAL, AND THEOLOGICAL COMMENTS
DR. VICTOR SASSON
The text of the so-called Vision of Gabriel and a photograph of its stone tablet were published in 2007 (1). On August 4, 2008 I read the text of the tablet for the first time and jotted down a few notes. The present essay – written a year later - incorporates those brief notes together with much recent analysis and reflections (2).
Both the stone and the text have been considered genuine and dated, on palaeographical grounds, approximately to late first century B. C. E. There is no good reason to doubt the authenticity of the stone and its text. The text – written in ink and comprising 87 lines - is too fragmentary for making a thoroughly coherent and clear sense of it. Even so, there are some words and lines in this long tablet that give us, at some junctures, reasonable clues as to what is being said and what is not being said.
In Second Temple Judaism there were various Jewish groups who espoused different religious ideologies. I have no intention of discussing messianic trends in non-canonical Jewish writings. My main sources of reference will be the Hebrew Bible and authoritative ancient Rabbinic views.
I must make it clear from the start, however, that the concept of a dead and risen Jewish messiah – even if it was current among some Jewish quarters at the time - must be rejected. Such a concept of Jewish messiah would not only have been foreign to ancient Middle Eastern Jewish culture and traditions, but would also have been considered heretical by the earlier Hebrew Prophets, and by contemporaneous Jewish Sages. There is nothing in the Hebrew Scriptures about a dead and risen mashiah, and there is not even a hint in the Vision of Gabriel about such an individual.
Similarly, any attempt that seeks to prop up the shaky theological foundations of Christianity by linking it to the Hebrew Scriptures – particularly regarding a messiah - must be dismissed. Scholars who are committed Christians, and who deal with the Hebrew Bible, are usually biased by the articles of their faith – articles which reject the basic, fundamental tenets of Biblically and Rabbinically based Judaism. Hence, whatever discussion and analyses such scholars offer on the question of Jewish mashiah (messiah) can only be biased, and therefore suspect.
I shall first discuss textual and philological issues related to the Vision, and then offer theological comments pertaining to the concept of messiah in mainstream Judaism and in Christianity.
Textual and Philological Comments on the Vision of Gabriel
In my opinion, the text of The Vision of Gabriel cannot be in reference to a personal controversy – a proposal that the editors of the text have suggested as a possibility. It is unlikely that an individual in ancient Palestine would have taken the trouble and expense to write on stone a text regarding a personal controversy, even if the controversy was of a theological nature. The text appears to be in reference to some impending, or apocalyptic, national event. Various textual indicators support this conclusion.
I shall first discuss the phrase dam tibhei yerushalayim (line 57) and a couple of other significant words and lines, and then delve into other related issues.
The term tebah (from the root tabah – with Het - to slaughter) occurs in Lamentations 2:21. Addressing God, the poet makes a heart-rending complaint, referring to the destruction of Jerusalem with its Temple, and the slaughter perpetrated by the invaders:
You have killed on the day of thy fury –
You slaughtered (tabahta); you had no compassion.
In Ezek. 21:33 we read hereb hereb petuhah, lat-tebah merutah (a sword, a sword unsheathed, and polished for slaughter).
The expression s>n tibhah (sheep for slaughter, Ps. 44:12) has been applied by the Psalmist to slaughter that is inflicted on people in time of war. People, in other words, are treated as if they were animals.
The term tebah (with tet) is akin to the term zebah (sacrifice), but tebah is typically used in reference to slaughter occasioned by wartime. King Jehu in II Kings: 10 tricks the prophets of Baal by telling them he has made Temple preparations for a big sacrificial event in honour of Baal. But those who are offered as sacrifice, by way of slaughter, are the prophets of Baal themselves.
The term galuth (exile, lines 37 and 38) must also be in reference to a national event. It can hardly refer to personal exile following a controversy with another individual - a suggestion put forward by the editors of the text.
As regards ‘three days’ (line 19 and elsewhere), the Hebrew Scriptures uses these words to refer to a brief span of time. The words should not be understood literally. Time, in terms of three days, seven days, and forty days, all carry certain connotations.
Taking into account what has been said above, the words dam tibhei yerushalayim (line 57) appear to refer to some apocalyptic, catastrophic, national event about to take place (the preceding word stm=satom may have ended a previous line but, if accepted for this line, it could mean ‘put/putting an end to’). This is in keeping with the language of the whole text – fragmentary as it is – and is reminiscent of the language/ideas of post-Exilic prophets, such as Hagai, Zechariah, and Daniel. Hence, the text of The Vision falls within the genre of those same books, and is a fervent call to obey the exhortations of the earlier Prophets. The words nebi’im shalahti (prophets I had sent), implies that the haranguing of those earlier prophets were ignored by the people – hence, the suffering and tribulations, occasioned by internal pressures and external forces. Still, the Vision’s historical context - if there is one - is not clear at all.
Considering what has been said above, the phrase dam tibhei yerushalayim does not appear to refer to the blood of Temple sacrifices - an interpretation the editors seem to prefer. Nevertheless, such a proposal should remain, pending further revised and refined readings of the ancient script used in the Vision. The context of this phrase – with the preceding word stm - may have demanded an end to the blood of Temple sacrifices since sacrifices would be of no avail in the face of impending doom.
The editors state the following (bottom of p.156): “Since the text is broken at many places, it appears to be a collection of short prophecies that were dictated to a scribe, like the prophetic books in the Hebrew Bible” (my translation). On the contrary, in my view the text is a self-contained composition.
The text of the tablet speaks of: ‘this bad plant’ (perhaps certain leaders or the nation itself)’; ‘evil crushed (or destined to be crushed) by righteousness’; ‘prophets that were sent before’ (to warn the people); ‘three holy ones’; ‘three shepherds’; David’; ‘Ephraim’; ‘Israel’; ‘the nations’; ‘three days’; ‘the blood of the Jerusalem slaughter’ (blood of the fallen dead); ‘heaven and earth’; ‘YHWH, Lord of Hosts, God of Israel’; ‘chariots’; ‘exile’, and ‘I, Gabriel’.
Of special significance is the repetition of the word ‘three’: ‘three signs’; ‘three days’; ‘three holy ones of the world; ‘three shepherds emerged in Israel’.
The three days seem to refer to an imminent destruction or, otherwise, to a possible national salvation, pending acts of repentance. Again, the word ‘three’ should not be taken in its literal sense.
The word qitut (line 24, ‘in a little while and I will upturn … the heavens and the earth’) is probably related to the word qat found in Ezek. 16:47, mentioned by the editors. Their alternative suggestion of linking it to qetatah (a quarrel) would not be contextually appropriate or relevant. Qitut is not attested elsewhere and could be an innovation by the author of the text himself. However, both ‘three days’ and qitut point to an imminent, apocalyptic event.
Philologically, the vocables tet and sade in Biblical Hebrew correspond to Arabic tah and thad. Qitut, in other words, could be a form of qisus (from qasas, with sadeh), cutting or shortening – hence, possibly connoting a short span of time. It could also connect with qatan, ‘small’ (in terms of time duration). Admittedly, these are philological/semantic possibilities to consider, not offered as certainties.
The mention of ‘three signs’, ‘three days’, ‘three holy ones of the world’, ‘three shepherds emerged in Israel’, all point to the sacred nature of the term ‘three’ in this present text and elsewhere in the Hebrew Bible - (cf. qadosh, qadosh, qadosh! in Isa. 6, and the three Hebrew Patriarchs - Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob; and the three Matriarchs).
The speaker in the vision is clearly Gabriel, an angel, or in some other function or office. The writer/speaker is (a) A devout, loyal Jew, steeped in the teachings of the Torah and prophecies of the Hebrew Scriptures. (b) He has a low opinion of gentile nations, calling them ge>im (‘proud ones’) instead of goyim. (c) He is addressing someone, telling him to ask questions (she>alani, line 21), but it is possible the speaker is addressing himself in a vision – i.e., a monologue/dialogue in the mind of the author himself. (d) He is asking for a sign (see line 17, and elsewhere).
Signs in the Vision are quite significant for the imminent event.
A clear historical context for the Vision is lacking, and therefore we do not know who and what exactly are being referred to. However, it is reasonably clear that in three days – meaning a short span of time - a violent, apocalyptic event will take place, not that any dead person will be resurrected. Miracle workers in those days probably were not few, and a rumour that a dead person rose from the dead, or was about to rise from the dead, would not have made big news, except perhaps in some extraordinary cases (3). Prophecy or a vision of an impending national catastrophic event would have made some impact on people, and would have motivated them to repent. On the other hand, the prophetic text of the Vision could have been purely a literary venture, available only to select few – those who were versed in the authoritative, canonical Hebrew prophetic traditions and were concerned with the nation’s future.
The language used is later, post-biblical, akin to Mishnaic, with no attested use of the waw consecutive. Matres are generally used, though not consistently – cf., for example, sb>oth (with waw, line 11) but sb>th (line 68), but this could be an exception, a scribal omission.
Many of the words and lines that are legible from the fragmentary text point to an imminent national destruction that would be followed by rebuilding. It is near extinction, followed by rehabilitation and survival, conditioned on repentance. But it must be emphasized that there is no shred of any kind of proof or even a single textual indicator that the reference is to a dead and risen Jewish messiah. Such an interpretation, even if it were possible in a future textual analysis, would only point to a sectarian, deviant sect - an offshoot of mainstream Judaism which, in the times of the ancient Jewish Sages in Palestine, had already crystallized into a solid and respectable Religion. By mainstream Judaism, I mean Jewish faith in principle and daily practice – based on the Hebrew Bible and on oral, handed down, traditions, - not necessarily the written documents, such as the codification of rules and regulations in the Mishnah. As is well known, oral customs and traditions come first, while codification comes much later.
Published Scholarly Opinions
Two other scholars have discussed the implications of the text from their own perspectives and understanding. One is I. Knohl (4) and, to a lesser extent - in a very short, sketchy article - J. J. Collins (5).
Knohl’s attempt to find textual basis for a Jewish resurrected messiah in the Vision of Gabriel should be abandoned, simply because the text of the tablet is too fragmentary for such a far reaching conclusion and for lack of any mention or hint of a messiah. I agree with Collins that Knohl’s reading of the tablet “is highly conjectural and goes far beyond the evidence”.
Let me discuss what I consider are the most important lines in Knohl’s analysis. These are line 80 and part of line 81.
He reads the following:
(80) Lshloshth ymyn h>yh, >ny gbry>l gw[zr]
“By three days, live, I Gabriel command you, prince of the princes.”
First of all, Ada Yardeni’s published study shows that she could only read the initial letter Het in Knohl’s h>yh, and she did not even consider it certain. However, in a written communication with this writer (August 2009), Yardeni explained that she could now read the letters Het and Alef, but that what follows could be Yod and He OR Waw and Taw. Then she added:
“Waw and Taw …yields Ha>wt. Both readings are possible because these letters are very faded, but these are the only options”.
In an earlier communication (a few days before), she had mentioned the word Ha>wt (‘the sign’) in line 17, in connection with the present line 80. Even though I tried twice to correct her, it seems she was still not aware that the initial letter in Ha>wt would be He and not Het.
Let us consider what the drift of the text is. Line 17 mentions ‘the sign’; line 79 mentions ‘the signs’. This tells us clearly that the sign or signs Gabriel needs from the person he is addressing are very important. Now since in Qumran script the shapes of the Het and the He are closely similar, and since the ink has faded, I am inclined to read He instead of Het. That would indeed give us a reading of Ha>wt (‘the sign’), connecting line 80 with the previous line 79, and with the earlier line 17. Signs in the Vision of Gabriel are portentous and significant.
In brief, the whole issue of this h>yh (with initial Het) suggested by Knohl is not only precarious, but also suspect. He had previously suggested a thesis regarding a resurrected Jewish mashiah, and has now found an opportunity with this letter Het (and Alef) to support his thesis. The other words that he supplies in line 80, with the exception of the existing ‘I Gabriel’ are in fact his own!
Knohl simply cannot hang his major thesis of a resurrected Jewish messiah or of a messianic tale on letters whose ink has faded, and on a couple of other self-concocted restorations.
One does not ‘restore’ a focal point, fundamental to one’s major thesis, on the basis of a letter or two, and then claim he has found supporting evidence. A professional epigrapher – and Knohl is not such one – would not engage in such self-deception. In other words, one cannot say there is a resurrected messiah in this text and then proceed to plant evidence in support of that conclusion.
In my own overall assessment of the fragmentary text, we can be certain that in the Vision of Gabriel there is not ONE single, clear reference to a dead and risen mashiah (messiah). For in a relatively long epigraphic text like this one, comprising 87 lines, there should be at least ONE single, clear mention of the word ‘mashiah’, if not several mentions of that phantom creature, considering the constant repetition of other words and lines, noted earlier in this essay.
Further, there are no textual indicators, let alone proof, that the mention of ‘the God of the chariots’ (line 26) and ‘their chariot’ (line 67) are in connection with a resurrected messiah who has been transported to heaven by a chariot. This is sheer, unfounded, speculation. In Hagai 2:23, for instance, we read about the destruction of a chariot (merkabah) and its riders. In other words, chariots were not exclusively used for transportation of resurrected messiahs to Heaven.
As to what John Collins states, it is clear he himself has an agenda. Given his background as a committed Christian scholar, his business appears to be to employ his academic scholarship in twisting the crystal clear words of the Hebrew Scriptures (which he persists in calling ‘Old Testament’- a biased and offensive theological term), to mean what the Christian writings pretend to mean. Christian interpretations in the ‘new’ Testament regarding a Jewish mashiah do not exist in the Hebrew Scriptures. Since Collins has accepted the interpretations of the gospels concerning a dead and risen Jewish messiah, any discussion of his on the text of the Gabriel Vision must be considered foreign, biased, and suspect.
Thus, Collins is quick to inject apologetics for the shaky origins and evolution of Christianity. He tells us that an introductory course on the ‘new’ Testament will show us that the early Christians “understood Jesus in light of Jewish prophecies and expectations”. This is as much as to say that the early Christians based their beliefs on the teachings of the Hebrew Scriptures - in other words, that they found solid bases for their belief in Yeshu as the anticipated Jewish messiah. This is a false claim. What the early Christians did was to seek textual proof, legitimacy, and respectability for their contrived ideas and concepts by quoting the Hebrew Scriptures. Fascinated by the Hebrew Bible, yet rejecting its fundamental tenets together with Judaism, they managed to concoct, orchestrate, and build up a castle in the air (=Christianity), based on fanciful textual interpretations.
Knohl is right in characterising Collins as “biased by his devotion to Christianity” – a religion that would have been vehemently denounced by Moses, Elijah, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, and the latter Hebrew prophets, including Daniel.
Basing one’s beliefs on another religion or ideological/theological text does not prove that the new ideology or the new religion is true to its declared sources. The highly devout Christian Republic of South Africa – up to recent years - based its evil doctrine or policy of racial superiority and racist rules of enslavement, torture, and murder on a line or two in the Hebrew Bible. Will John Collins tell us that an introductory course on the Hebrew Bible will teach us that Apartheid is a legitimate form of humane government, supported by the Hebrew Scriptures? Will he tell us that ‘Apartheid was understood in light of textual sources in the Hebrew Bible’? Considering what he has told us about the ‘new’ Testament, we would expect him to answer in the affirmative.
In connection with Knohl’s thesis about a Jewish messiah predating Jesus, Collins states the following: “threat to Christian theology is no more than a marketing strategy”. The Christian ‘theology’ that Collins speaks of does not exist. It is mythology based on misinterpretation of sundry Hebrew words and some texts, all taken out of their contexts and twisted to mean what the early Hellenized Jews/Christians wished them to mean. Modern scientific scholarship would not endorse or accept such misrepresentations of the Hebrew Scriptures.
Messiah in Judaism and in Christianity
The word ‘messiah’ comes from Hebrew mashiah, meaning ‘an anointed one’ (root mashah – with Het - to anoint). Persons were anointed kings and, in certain cases, prophets. The act of being officially anointed meant divine approval. In the Hebrew Scriptures there are various references to this symbolic act. Even a non-Hebrew king, like Cyrus, king of the Medes, was called ‘mashiah’ for his righteous actions and just government (Isa. 45:1).
Gradually, in post Exilic times, the concept of a Jewish messiah developed further. The mashiah would bring divine help, political and otherwise, to those who identified themselves as Jews. He would bring messianic, ideal, times to his people and, possibly also, to the rest of the world. Ancient Rabbinic opinions differed as to what sort of person that anointed one would be (6). But he would definitely not be a deity. There is nothing in the Hebrew Scriptures regarding any mashiah (messiah) in the form the early Hellenised Jews/Christians devised, constructed, and proposed.
Further, a dead and a risen mashiah (messiah) is in fact a contradiction in terms. For a mashiah by definition is one who can extend help to others. He is (in Biblical Hebrew) a moshia<, ‘a helper’. A dead mashiah, even if resurrected, would not be of any assistance to others, and definitely would have nothing to do with the Hebrew Scriptures and with the oral traditions of mainstream Jewish faith.
John Collins - like other committed Christians - must therefore renounce his reliance on the Hebrew Bible. For a dead and risen Jewish mashiah has never been part of the canonical Hebrew sources, nor of mainstream Judaism!
It is a major article of faith in the Jewish religion to wait and hope for the mashiah. Maimonides (Rabbi Moshe ben-Maimon, the Sepharadi - twelfth century C. E.) makes this clear in his Yigdal Elohim – a hymn, which lists the thirteen articles of Jewish faith, and is part of the morning liturgy in the Hebrew prayer book.
The story of a divine dead and risen messiah, as depicted in the ‘new’ Testament, absolutely negates the Torah of Moses and the teachings of the Hebrew Prophets. Moses and the Hebrew Prophets would have branded Christian articles of faith as downright heresies, and those Jews who espoused them would be considered apostates, deserving of severe punishment.
The Hebrew Scriptures are full of denunciations of idolatry, of graven images, of worshipping other deities, and there is no need to cite chapter and verse. Such references are all over the Pentateuch and the books of the Hebrew Prophets. Further, it is for mainstream Judaism and its leaders to interpret these texts, which are clear regarding idolatry. It is not for members of other nations or Jewish apostates to interpret the teachings of the Hebrew Scriptures, or dictate what these Scriptures say or mean.
The concept of a virgin birth is one of those miracle stories that non-Jewish scholars are fond of finding in the Hebrew Bible – e.g. the Elisha stories. Yet when it comes to Christian miracle stories, like the virgin birth, incarnation, and the like, these assume the respectable rubric of ‘Theology’.
The concept of physical incarnation is foreign to Middle Eastern Jewish thought, but normal or natural in the cultures and mentalities of the Greeks and the Romans (cf. Ovid’s Metamorphoses).
The mention of ‘Israel’ as God’s son in Hosea, for instance, is a metaphor. It is a term of endearment, and there are other terms of endearment in the Hebrew Bible that should not be understood in a literal sense. But since the West has been deeply rooted (if not mired) in classical mythology, Hellenized Jews and native Greeks sought to fuse Hebraic religious concepts with those of Greece and Rome (cf. Milton’s Hellenized depiction of Hebrew Bible episodes in his Paradise Lost, and Voltaire’s ridicule of this in his Candide).
Psalm 2 must also be understood as speaking of the anointed king, as a messiah, in terms of endearment, not literally. The mention of ‘son’ should only be understood in a figurative sense. Further, one cannot base a religion on Psalms 2 and 100 and a couple of other biblical Hebrew texts. In making such claims, Christianity proves its shaky, wobbly nature. For this religion is so desperately deficient of proof that it hangs on any and every flimsy ‘evidence’ in what they call ‘The Old Testament’.
The concept of ‘trinity’ has always been found offensive to Jews and Muslims as it negates and violates the purely distinctive idea of a Supreme God. The linguistic hair-splitting maneuvers Christianity engages in is quite baffling.
And yet, while Judaism has long ago rejected Yeshu as the anticipated messiah, Islam accepted this poor Middle Eastern Jew as a prophet. Islam, thus, has recognized that the concept of a divine messiah as portrayed in the ‘new’ Testament is false. The Quran is clear on this focal point: ‘God does not beget, nor is He begotten’ – ‘lam yalid, walam yulad’.
Islam in fact has many admirable elements, in particular its emphasis on the Unity of God, as formulated in the Pentateuch and in the Hebrew Prophets, and so important in the Jewish faith. The Jewish credo is “Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is one”. Islam’s emphasis on the Unity of God makes Islam truly a very close relation of the Jewish faith. And this fact has been recognized by Maimonides in his Epistle to Yemen, a letter he wrote to the Jews of Yemen, in a response he made to them.
As to the concept of resurrection, it is thoroughly Jewish in its origins. Again, we find this in Maimonides’ hymn, Yigdal Elohim, and he makes it a major article of Jewish faith. The Talmud shows that there were diverse Rabbinic opinions about the nature of resurrection and also regarding what persons would be entitled to that privilege.
In the Vision of Gabriel there is no mention of a significant word that recurs in biblical messianic writings particularly regarding the end of days and such apocalyptic allusions. The word is qes (with sadeh), often used in the Book of Daniel and mentioned in Maimonides’ hymn in connection with messianic times.
Finally, the Vision of Gabriel has no mention of the Prophet Elijah, the traditional precursor of the true Jewish Messiah (cf. Mal. 3:23).
What has been said so far in this essay is relevant to the question whether or not there could be mention of a dead and a risen messiah in the Vision of Gabriel. Mainstream Hebraic/Jewish thought – based on the Hebrew Bible - would have entertained no such reference to, or belief in, a dead and risen Jewish mashiah. A Jewish mashiah would bring life and hope and a new era of near utopian prospects, not idealized suffering and death as portrayed in Christianity.
Finally, the history of the last two millennia prove that messianic times of peace and justice have not yet arrived, and that Western nations’ acceptance of Yeshu as a messiah has only proved to be a source of wars, torture, slaughter, inquisitions, and ethnic cleansing among Christian nations themselves. For the Jewish mashiah that the Jews have always hoped for was never, and is never, meant to be a personal saviour – a hazy concept that the Hellenized Jews/Christians developed - but a national and universal symbol of hope, justice, and peace that would operate in actual reality. Granted, this Jewish concept has developed into a hope, a goal, and an ideal – but it is an ideal that has long been considered to be worth striving for, however distant it may be.
An introductory course on the Hebrew Bible, and a good knowledge of Biblical Hebrew, would - and should - convince any intelligent, educated person, of whatever faith, of the contriving and erring interpretations of the gospels regarding the Jewish mashiah.
The Vision of Gabriel contains a text that is similar to other earlier biblical prophetic texts that speak of apocalyptic visions and of dire consequences. The language used is more akin to later Hebrew, reminiscent of Mishnaic. While certain words and phrases are repeated in the text, there is not one single mention of the word mashiah.
Based on the Hebrew Scriptures, the mashiah that the Jews have always hoped for and waited for cannot be a dead and risen individual. He is an anointed one, divinely ordained for a mission – a mission to herald peace, justice and universal good to His people and to the world. From the point of view of the Hebrew canonical sacred writings – the Hebrew Scriptures - and authoritative, mainstream Jewish traditions, the messiah is not a personal saviour. The sole personal and universal Saviour is God himself, and He is so proclaimed in the Pentateuch and in the Hebrew Prophets. “I am, I am the Lord, and there is no other Saviour besides me” (Isa. 43:11), and “I am the First and I am the Last and besides me there is no other God” (Isa. 44:6). The concept of a resurrected messiah is a thoroughly foreign/Hellenized/Greek concept, patently spurious and has no place in the culture of the Hebrew Bible and normative Judaism (7).
1. Ada Yardeni and Benyamin Elitzur, “A Prophetic Text written on Stone from the
First Century B. C. E. – A Preliminary Publication”, Cathedra 123 (2007), pp. 155-166 (in Modern Hebrew).
2. Even though a year had elapsed from the time I first saw the text of the Vision, I did
not follow published research on it. What has prompted me to research the text of the Vision was the recent controversy regarding the question of a messiah in the text. I have therefore tackled the text equipped only with Knohl’s main reading of lines 80-81 regarding a resurrected, pre-Christian messiah, and Collins brief rebuttal.
3. I recall hearing the name of R. Meir Ba’al Han-ness (Rabbi Meir, the Miracle
Worker) at home when I was growing up in Baghdad. I also recall childhood visits to the Tomb of the Prophet Ezekiel and the Tomb of Ezra the Scribe (Ezra Has-Sofer).
4. Israel Knohl, “By Three Days, Live” – Messiahs, Resurrection, and Ascent to
Heavens in Hazon Gabriel, in Journal of Religion (2008), pp. 147-158.
5. J. J. Collins, in Yale Alumnai Magazine (September/October, 2008).
6. See A. Cohen’s Everyman’s Talmud (E.P. Dutton, 1949) Chapter XI (The Hereafter) for ancient Rabbinic views regarding the messiah, resurrection of the dead, and related issues.
7. The purpose of my discussion of the Jewish messiah is to expose the blatant misrepresentations of the Hebrew Scriptures by Christianity. The constant missionary work that world churches do to proselytize Jews and gentiles is a source of animosity and hatred. Many Jews and many Muslims resent this activity. Missionary work is done on an ongoing massive, universal scale, with free books, free talks, free events, ensnaring and trapping the souls of ‘unbelievers’ who are warned that unless they accept Jesus as their saviour, they are destined for the flames of Hell!
20th August, 2009
Copyright © Victor Sasson, 2009
All Rights Reserved
Dr. Victor Sasson grew up in Baghdad. He is British-educated and holds degrees from the University of London and an American Ph.D. He was Senior Lecturer in Semitic Languages at the University of South Africa, Member of the Society for Old Testament Study, and Fellow of the Royal Asiatic Society. A biblical scholar and specialist in Hebrew and Aramaic Epigraphy, he has also published four novels, including King Jehoash and the Mystery of the Temple of Solomon Inscription, which is based on his published research on the Jehoash tablet.
Wednesday, May 6, 2009
By Dr. Victor Sasson
I have recently watched an old classic film, one that I first watched many years ago. Robert Taylor, who acts as a professional archaeologist in Egypt, agrees to help a beautiful woman fulfill the dream of her late devout father and find an archaeological item that would confirm the story of Joseph in Egypt, and so ‘confirm the Bible’. He, of course, does not believe in such stories and calls himself a scientist. “I have a weakness for facts”, he says at one point in the film.
Valley of the Kings was filmed on location in Egypt and has everything that one could wish for in an adventure film. Mr. Taylor is not only a famous archaeologist but also an epigrapher who can read new hieroglyphs at a glance. He is an incredible fighter with physical stamina, a taskmaster, directing an excavation (Moodeer), with a stick in his hand, shouting orders left and right, highly intelligent, and of course, a great lover. On top of that, Mr. Taylor can speak good Arabic, and even sing ‘ya-aziz aini ana biddi arawwah baladi - baladi ya-baladi’ with the local Egyptian workers.
This is of course a romantic and ideal picture of an archaeologist, in the tradition of Indiana Jones.
But let us get down to reality.
From what I know of field archaeologists, they are people with training in dating pottery and ancient walls, and passion and patience for digging. I don’t know if they care anything about the past, or the present. What they most care about is funding, money, for their excavations and an ardent wish to Heaven not to pour down rain until the work is finished. There are exceptions, of course - those who can deal with epigraphic finds. But I think those have been very few. Generally, when archaeologists venture into the field of epigraphy, they find themselves on very slippery ground.
I shall dwell on one example only.
The site of Horvath ‘Uzza in the Negev was excavated during 1982-88. On one occasion a bowl inscribed with some 13 lines in what seemed to be Biblical Hebrew was discovered. Since the archaeologist who found it could read and write in Modern Hebrew, he thought he could offer a translation and a commentary on the text. What he produced was amateurish, to say the least (see Tel Aviv 20, 1993). He considered the text to be some sort of business receipt, documenting a transaction, with the name Gedalyahu appearing in the inscription. Realising his shortcomings as an epigrapher, he gave the text to F. M. Cross of Harvard. This last recognised the literary nature of the text and offered some very brief notes – some correct, some wrong - without making a coherent sense of the whole. The archaeologist (and we shall leave his name unmentioned) decided to put the word ‘literary’ in the title of his article, when in fact his translation and his analysis show that he stuck to his original interpretation in taking the inscribed bowl as a business receipt.
Within two weeks of seeing that text myself, I managed to decipher it and also find for it a biblical parallel, in the Book of Job. It turned out to be a literary text of the first order. In my detailed analysis, I found that the name Gedalyahu did not exist. The
letters were to be read gaddel yah (to magnify God). This is only one instance of misreading and misunderstanding the text. For various linguistic and other reasons that I have discussed in my study, I called the language used Edomite.
With the appearance of the Tell Dan inscription in 1994, I felt compelled to put that unfinished research on hold as it required further elaboration and clarity of presentation before I could submit it to a scholarly journal. I was teaching at the time and the Tell Dan inscription was a great sensation, with the bytdwd (House of David) appearing in it, proving the existence outside the corpus of the Hebrew Bible of a Davidic dynasty. But for years, while my research results about the Horvath ‘Uzza inscription were unpublished, that text was considered by biblical scholars to be some sort of a business receipt. No professional epigrapher took it up for analysis. No doubt it was considered too obscure. Only in 2003, I found the time to resume work on it and finally completed it. From the time it was submitted, it took two and a half years to appear in print (see my published study, ‘An Edomite Joban Text, with a Biblical Joban Parallel’, in ZAW 117, 2006).
With the Jehoash tablet, matters have proved differently. Many persons who have had nothing to do with Hebrew and Aramaic epigraphy; scholars who had never published a research study on a single epigraphic Hebrew text, decided to jump in on the wagon and broadcast their results. And so, overnight we were flooded with newfangled ‘epigraphers’ who, generally speaking, kept repeating each other’s ‘findings’. With the wonder of the computer and the Internet, Epigraphy has become the occupation of many dilettantes. We even have an Akkadian scholar who has independently published an un-refereed article of his on the Internet (we shall leave his name unmentioned). That article would certainly not be accepted by any reputable scholarly journal, because the author’s treatment of the Jehoash text shows him to be an Akkadian scholar, not a professional Hebrew and Aramaic epigrapher. In other words, the Hebrew text of the Jehoash is treated as an Akkadian text – hence, it is sort of an exercise in Akkadian philology. And yet, this person has been interviewed left and right, even by the BBC, repeating his suspect ‘research’ to the unsuspecting public!
And now we see some nimble journalists who have decided to join the ranks of these mushroomed epigraphers. This new phenomenon is one of the most clear and outrageous forgeries of the twenty-first century. These are the people who should be chased after by the Antiquities Authority in Jerusalem. For a fake epigrapher will pronounce a genuine inscription fake, and a fake inscription, genuine.
What is of paramount importance in professional epigraphic research is the language of the inscribed text – the words, the syntax, the historical allusions, the imagery used, if any, and so forth, but above all, the language employed. Amateurs
who have tried to deal with the text of the Jehoash inscription blundered, since they are oblivious to this basic but most important fact. It is extremely difficult to fake a convincing language of about three thousand years ago - assuming that we know how 9th century B. C. E. Biblical Hebrew looked like. Anyway, a serious and sophisticated forger, intent on making thousands of dollars, if not millions, would take all possible precautions not to use any modern lexical terms or expressions. Nothing would be used that is even remotely suggestive of these (the terms bedeq bayith are in fact biblical themselves). He has all the time at his disposal, all the thinking that has to be done, and the necessary preparations for his project. He would have to know thorough Biblical Hebrew and, in connection with the Jehoash, a good knowledge of Hebrew epigraphic texts and of biblical history. And yet, those who claim the Jehoash text is fake, also claim that it was done by a native speaker of Modern Hebrew, who foolishly blundered in using a modern expression.
F. M. Cross, in his short (and I must say, cavalier treatment of the text), has mentioned seven disciplines in which his supposed forger was proficient. If we accept this conclusion about such specialised knowledge, then the author of the tablet can hardly be a forger. Further, the script of the tablet has some problems – but these problems may be our own problems, not necessarily problems originating with the author himself. On the other hand, if the text is the work of a forger, he would definitely not have used any kind of reference that is obscured in the text, any allusion that is highly difficult to decipher, since that would defeat his purpose as an impostor. For indeed there are several biblical/historical elements embedded in the text of the Jehoash inscription, which have eluded the few professional epigraphers in the field of Hebrew and Aramaic Epigraphy, including Cross himself. I have already discussed these elsewhere, in my published research, in Ugarit-Forschungen 35, 2004.
A professional, effective analysis of the language used in an inscription is therefore very important. Without the text, the stone is just a stone that tells us
little except, perhaps, how old it is. Language is both science and art. Expertise in a language is time-consuming, very difficult to attain. Only those who have spent years reading a particular language in its various historical/textual stages, and have had the necessary academic training, having also proved their knowledge with other genuine epigraphic texts, possess the necessary expertise to discuss a controversial epigraphic text with authority.
In my own published analysis of the text of the Jehoash inscription, I have advanced the possibility of the text being an ancient replica or copy of an original one. I based this possibility on a reference in the Tell Fakhriyah inscription, of the same age
(see my long, detailed study, The Aramaic Text of the Tell Fakhriyah Assyrian-Aramaic Bilingual Inscription in ZAW 97, 1985). Several years after the publication of my Jehoash
research, some scholars have in fact accepted this thesis, not always acknowledging their source.
Some new textual evidence that I wished to present to the court in Jerusalem, in the trial of Oded Golan was deemed inadmissible by the prosecutor, who claimed he was not prepared for any new evidence. (See my essay ‘The Trial on Trial, and Unholy Hoaxes by a Nimble Journalist’).
There is a world of difference between concluding that the Jehoash text is definitely fake, and concluding that it may be genuine.
Let us now turn to palaeography. While palaeography and the physical aspects of the stone are of importance, they are of less importance than the textual, for palaeography and patina can have various possible, even probably, explanations, relating to accidents of time and place. Now since the Jehoash script has some problems, the extant text could be an ancient copy of an original text, as I have mentioned before – and why not? All of our existing texts of the Hebrew Bible are in fact copies of copies. And of course the Dead Sea Scrolls are copies of copies of copies. Ancient Middle Eastern Jewish scribes
kept copying texts over and over again over a period of many centuries.
In the Jehoash inscription, the script is not immaculate. If the text were a forgery, we would expect the script to be perfectly crafted, or nearly so. But it is not perfect. For that reason, it has been called ‘mixed’. There could be all sorts of good reasons for that - reasons of which we do not know.
In an article titled ‘Faking Biblical History’ (Archaeology 56:5, 2003), two scholars, Y. Goren and N. A. Silberman, state that in this day and age, with the wonder of the computer, even a teenager could resize the script of 9th century B.C.E. Hebrew, to look perfect on the Jehoash tablet! They are foolishly unaware, however, that this defeats their own claim that the script of the Jehoash is the work of a sophisticated forger! This is what happens when a scientist, Goren, and a historian, Silberman, meddle with Epigraphy and co-author a piece about faking biblical history. Neither of them has ever published a single research study on the language of a minor or a major Hebrew or Aramaic inscription. The article they co-authored presented nothing more than a rehash of some other scholars’ claims that the Jehoash is a forgery. Hence, they are not professional epigraphers. And hence, it is they themselves who have engaged in distorting, if not faking, biblical history.
In response to my article regarding her opinion piece in the Los Angeles Times, Nina Burleigh, a reporter, makes false remarks, which are diversionary and irrelevant to the issue of biblical antiquities and epigraphy. This proves how unprofessional and desperate a reporter she is. Since she can not deal with Hebrew and Aramaic Epigraphy - a highly specialised area, completely beyond her knowledge and comprehension - she resorts to making false personal statements. (See L.A. Times of 29th November, 2008; and my two-piece essay, ‘The Trial on Trial and Unholy Hoaxes from a Nimble Journalist’, and her response to that last essay in Bible and Interpretation).
Ms. Burleigh rushes in where angles fear to tread. She is unaware that Biblical/Semitic Epigraphy is a mine field, discreetly avoided by many biblical scholars or, if tackled, approached very gingerly.
As a professional epigrapher, normally I would not respond to dilettante articles by newspaper reporters who do not know what they are talking about. But since I am also a writer, it is necessary, indeed essential, to respond to her sham journalistic mediocrity, which is bound to mislead the general public.
On account of the mixed serious and comic nature of Burleigh’s articles on my specialised field, I find myself dealing with it accordingly. This part of my essay will therefore treat what is serious seriously, and what is comic, satirically.
Here are some of the blunders she commits:
Ms. Burleigh reports – based on my British spelling – that I reside in London.
This is not true (even though at one time in the past I considered myself a Londoner). Since I am British-educated, I have chosen to use British spelling in all my scholarly and literary writings.
When she writes that I wrote a novel about my ex-wife, she is violating a sacred rule of Journalism: not to divert attention by making false personal statements. That particular book is not autobiographical; it is fiction. It is a novel about all cunning feminists, like Potiphar’s wife, Job’s wife, Jezebel, Vashti, Lady Macbeth, and the likes of Nina Burleigh.
Confessions of a Sheep for Slaughter is a novel of ideas, literary allusions, and linguistic associations – which, I very much suspect, would be too demanding on Nina Burleigh’s intelligence, knowledge, and imagination. It is about feminists who have no regard for family values, and who are willing to do anything to advance their careers. But what has this novel of mine to do with the issue of biblical antiquities and the Jehoash inscription? Nothing at all. Still, she chose to mention it, yet cunningly omitting that part of the subtitle which, in full, reads: Memoirs of Feminist Wolves and their Little Crimes. She purposely omitted the Little Crimes because she was about to commit some herself.
When she reports that I am “a scholar”, she deliberately omits the fact that I am a specialist in Semitic Epigraphy, a field in which she is a complete cipher.
All of this tells us something important about third rate reporters. Either they fail to check their facts, or they obscure them, or they distort the truth to suit their own hidden agenda, or make false personal statements. Ms. Burleigh has committed all these misdemeanours, and the evidence, in my opinion, is sufficient for an objective person to disrobe her of the title ‘journalist’. In fact, she disqualifies herself. Readers, therefore, are advised to go to original sources and not to rely on the suspect and self-serving articles of this reporter who, obviously, has a cheap opinion of her profession and its ethics.
Confronting the truth about her sham, irresponsible reporting with anger, she reacts like a child, hitting left and right. Understandable, but not excusable.
It is clear N. B. has not taken the trouble to read my published epigraphic research on the Jehoash inscription, nor any of my less difficult literary novels. My study on a biblical feminist – Job’s wife – would be of particular interest to her (see ‘The Literary and Theological Function of Job’s Wife in the Book of Job’, Biblica vol. 79:1 – 1998). As a militant feminist, she will find this research stimulating and relatively easy to understand, aside from the possibility – albeit remote - of reforming her. Here is an opportunity for N. B. to beat her breast and come clean. But I do realise the unlikelihood of that to happen.
Regarding the Jehoash inscription, she again disparagingly refers to specialists in Semitic Studies as if they were wishy-washy newspaper reporters. She has no idea what authentic, scholarly, time-consuming research is. She gives her lay readers an example of wishful thinking, with the name Madoff in it. They are told it is a joke, illustrating simple-minded specialists, who “want” to believe (want to believe!) that a present-day fabricated item is an ancient one. Thus, Hebraists, philologists, and Semitic Epigraphers, who have spent years in study, research, and publications, are dismissed as if they were gossip reporters for teenage girls (Nina Burleigh’s expertise). Instead of admitting she has previously blundered, plunging into specialised fields beyond her knowledge and comprehension, she again feeds her unsuspecting general public with well written trash. She is unaware of the dangers of what she is doing, using sham reporting to distort the truth. She does not possess the training, knowledge, and experience to tackle the linguistic and textual issues involved - not even on a very elementary level. Hence she resorts to a childish analogy and to personal innuendoes, even false statements, to compensate for her intellectual and imaginative disabilities.
The example she gives is fallacious because the name Madoff and a certain supposedly controversial expression in the Jehoash tablet (wa’a’as bedeq hab-bayith), in reference to Temple repairs, do not correspond to each other. It is for epigraphers, linguists, Hebraists, and philologists, to discuss this expression and other textual/linguistic matters, not for a reporter of a popular magazine to take sides or pass judgement.
Let us turn the Tell Dan Old Aramaic inscription. This inscription was unearthed in July 1993. As soon as it appeared in print some time later, I started working on it, and spent a whole year analysing it, eventually publishing a detailed research study (‘The Old Aramaic Inscription from Tell Dan: Philological, Literary, and Historical Aspects’, Journal of Semitic Studies 40:1, 1995). The discovery of the stone was made under supervised excavation, and although the majority of scholars, including myself, considered it genuine, some others considered it a forgery. Now if a major epigrapher considers an inscription a forgery, others in the same field must evaluate the evidence he presents with the seriousness it deserves, and then come to an informed conclusion. When a popular magazine reporter, a lay person – who happens to be a cipher in Biblical and Semitic Epigraphy – dares to broadcast her personal opinion about it, we possess the right not only to dismiss it publicly, but also to accuse her of spreading misinformation, thereby misleading the unsuspecting readers.
Now in the Tell Dan inscription we find two words combined into one, without a separating dot, bytdwd (the House of David), which must refer to a dynasty headed by King David of Judah. One young scholar, who has spent several years studying the inscription (especially its palaeography) has proposed a different interpretation of this. He considers it to be in reference to ‘a small principality’, the ancient city of Jerusalem and not to a person or dynasty. (For my review article, critiquing his book – based on a doctoral thesis – see ‘The Problems of a New Minimized Reading of the Tell Dan Old Aramaic Inscription’, Journal of Semitic Studies, Vol. L, No.1, 2005). As a result of his adoption of the Deconstructionist/Minimalist approach to the Hebrew Bible, the kingdoms of David and Solomon disappear from our view. We are told they had never existed. One could put up with this thesis - provisionally. But how can one stand idle when this man (who, incidentally also teaches Greek) down-sizes and devalues the Hebrew Bible – one of the greatest literary achievements, not only of Middle Eastern ancient Jewry but also of World Literature?
He talks of “the biblical record” as “an unknown quantity at best and a pure fabrication at worst” (p. 299 in his book).
We shall not discuss this man’s religion or his politics - they may all be Greek. He is not aware that his “New” Testament is one big fabrication itself, the greatest swindle of all times, in that it appropriated the Hebrew Bible, based itself upon it, then rejected it at the same time. I wonder if he has the guts to make a public statement that this “New” Testament of his is ‘a fabrication’. He would find himself excommunicated and unemployed.
Friedrich Nietzsche recognised, even in German translation, the power, majesty, and glory of the Hebrew Scriptures, and considered these to be unparalleled in any other literature, including the Indian and the Chinese (see his treatise, Beyond Good and Evil, section 52). Unknown to him, the original Biblical Hebrew, particularly of the Prophets, is a hundred fold more awe inspiring and powerful than any translation. He rightly lambasted the “New” Testament as a laughable attachment to the Hebrew Bible.
We now need to get back to Nina Burleigh and to her false epigraphic analogy.
She appears to have consulted amateurs or would be ‘epigraphers’, and repeated what they had told her.
Let us suppose that in addition to finding bytdwd in the Tell Dan inscription, we happen also to find two Semitic (Hebrew or Aramaic) letters, corresponding to English NB. What could such two mysterious letters be in reference to? We could surmise them to be the initials of Napoleon Bonaparte. That interpretation would show the text to be a relatively modern fabrication by a foolish and slovenly forger, because Napoleon lived about two hundred years ago, not in biblical times. We could of course conclude it is in reference to one Noona Boor-lye – a prototype American Indian feminist who, having deserted her husband and children to advance her career, travelled on a flying horse to Jerusalem, where she conducted interviews with King David about his liaisons with Bathsheba. No doubt even in those days people were interested in such stories. Since NB spoke a native language, possibly Chinook, and could say nothing in Biblical Hebrew, she must have used sign language to communicate with the great King. But that would be before America was discovered, before the suffragettes arrived on the scene, and long before women were granted equal rights, or ventured into journalism – professional or dilettante. It was also before any female could think independently, let alone write an opinion piece – straight or crooked – in the newspapers. Moreover, in those days magazines for people were not in fashion, and so NB would have to stand for something completely different (to use the jargon of Monty Pythons Flying Circus).
We must leave this hypothetical epigraphic conundrum unsolved for the time being. There is nothing wrong with that. Even the police must on occasions leave unsolved murder cases on hold till new evidence comes to light, if it comes to light at all.
Ms. Burleigh refers to my scholarly novel about the Jehoash inscription, King Jehoash and the Mystery of the Temple of Solomon Inscription in a derogatory manner. I may safely assume she has not read it. Had she read it, she would have learned a few things about epigraphy in general, and about the Jehoash inscription, in particular – general things that would have been instructive and of benefit to her. For my novel, in fact, is more non-fiction than fiction, and her non-fiction - Unholy Business – is more fiction than non-fiction. I am basing this conclusion on the superficial, confused, and ridiculous statements she has made in her newspaper article, and in her response to my essay, ‘Unholy Hoaxes from a Nimble Journalist’.
Finally, N. B. informs us that during her interviews with biblical and Semitic scholars, she has encountered all sorts of ‘characters’ – by which she probably means weird ones. This statement, coming from a feminist about-town who is no doubt in her fifties, is incredible, because anyone who has lived for some thirty years on this Planet Earth would know that there are ‘characters’ in every field of human activity, including journalism. And this is fully illustrated by the ‘character’ of N. B. herself. Happily, I must count myself fortunate for not having been one of those characters she interviewed. Clearly, she had no inkling whatsoever of my own existence, even though I had written a doctoral thesis on early Hebrew inscriptions in the Seventies, and published numerous epigraphic studies over a period of some thirty years!
Let us hope – against hope probably – that no more dilettante reports on Semitic Epigraphy will issue from the pen of Ms. Burleigh, for while she may claim they are authentic, we can definitely, and with ease, prove them rehashed, fake. Unfortunately for her, she is not even aware how childish and ridiculous her reports on Epigraphy and Biblical Antiquities look to professionals like myself. It appears therefore that we shall see more of her clever fabrications which, when all is said and done, do afford some entertainment, albeit not of a quite harmless nature, to put it mildly.
And my prophecy, alas, has in fact just come true. For lo and behold, my misgivings have proved right! Nina Burleigh, yes, has struck again. It now appears she has decided to assume the mantle of an official reporter on epigraphic discoveries and biblical antiquities. For only last night I happened to come across a piece by one, N. B.,
about the newly discovered tablet, The Vision of Gabriel. The few sentences I brought myself to read said something about Biblical Forgeries!
In no time I myself began to see prophetic visions, fearful omens that this world of ours is indeed coming to a sorry End. With the global warming, the collapse of the global economy, the cheapening and deterioration of formal education in general, and of journalism, in particular, and the onslaughts of feminists on Semitic Epigraphy, prophetic visions will definitely increase and multiply. The End of Days and the Final Judgement are at hand. The Gates of Repentance are sealed forever. Noah’s Ark will be of no avail; for there will be no escape.
There is no peace for the wicked, says the Lord!
Journalism is an honourable profession. At its best it is the voice of the people by the people, for the people. But it carries with it great responsibilities. Integrity of reporting is one of its sacred principles. A journalist, worth his or her salt, tells truth to power. This is what George Orwell professed and practised.
When a reporter engages in a specialised field she knows nothing about, she is taking short cuts, where short cuts do not exist, or cannot work.
We have seen the dangers of bad reporting, of propaganda, of mass indoctrination. These lead to mass hysteria and to unnecessary, cruel wars. We have seen it with the Communists, the Nazis, and more recently in the West, and in certain other countries. We have seen it when the media acquiesce and even actively support the government, any government. When truth is violated, when there is no integrity in reporting, many people suffer and, in the worst scenarios, thousands of lives are lost and cities go up in flames.
I recall how Bernard Levin, a prominent English journalist in the 1960’s, supported wholeheartedly the war against North Vietnam. By sacrificing our men over there, he kept saying, we can sleep safe and sound at night over here, and our way of life is secure. The Vietnamese, who were nothing on the world stage, were painted as evil incarnate. This is what gossip is - empty but dangerous words, trash clothed in convincing jargon aimed to fool the masses. Nowadays, the Vietnamese – who chose to fight for their own nasty ideology - are working very hard to provide cheap labour and cheap merchandise for the relatively prosperous West. They turned out to be good, nice people – much better than the generally detested G. W. Bush and Dick Cheney, and the torturers of Guantanamo Bay prison.
I am not suggesting that Nina Burleigh is about to instigate World War III by her suspect reports on Epigraphy and Biblical Antiquities. What I am suggesting is that sham, irresponsible journalism can in fact lead to wars – make no mistake about it – by drumming up lies and mass hysteria. As a reporter, N. B. is setting a bad example to younger journalists. Today it is biblical antiquities, tomorrow it could be another Vietnam war she would support. She is a voice of the government, not of the people – and that is suspect! For government is power, and power corrupts.
Sooner or later, N. B. will realise the need to go back to school – as a freshman - and study ethical journalism, the fundamentals of truthful, responsible reporting. She will learn about integrity. A good school of journalism will teach her that it never pays to fake it. Only then can she go out into the world and write about issues she knows, and serve the Public and the Truth.
Such a public servant was George Orwell. Here is an example to follow.
29th March, 2009
Copyright © 2009 by Victor Sasson
Dr. Victor Sasson grew up in Baghdad. He is British-educated and holds degrees from the University of London and an American Ph.D. He was Senior Lecturer in Semitic Languages at the University of South Africa, Member of the Society for Old Testament Study, and Fellow of the Royal Asiatic Society. A biblical scholar and specialist in Hebrew and Aramaic Epigraphy, he has also published four novels, including King Jehoash and the Mystery of the Temple of Solomon Inscription, which is based on his published research on the Jehoash tablet.
Monday, May 4, 2009
Several weeks after my court testimony in Jerusalem, I chanced to read an opinion piece entitled ‘Hoaxes from the Holy Land’ (Los Angles Times, Nov. 29, 08), written by someone who knew how to rehash information that branded the Jehoash a forgery. I had never heard of this Nina Burleigh before. She spoke of ‘nimble defence attorneys’ who sought to prove (among other archaeological objects) the authenticity of the Jehoash inscription. It struck me as insipid, shallow and thoroughly unreliable, written by a third rate journalist who dared to venture into one of the most specialized fields in Semitic Studies - Hebrew and Aramaic epigraphy. Nina Burleigh’s article is a burlesque, paraded as a well-informed opinion piece. In fact she has no informed opinion of her own to speak of. A professional journalist would present a balanced, unbiased account of the controversy. This one pontificates, using abusive language, and passing judgement on experts in a field she knows absolutely nothing. What this journalist gave us was a piece of her own confused mind, mixed with misinformation and insults.
This is what she says about both the prosecution and the defence in the Jerusalem trial: “So prosecutors …collected a long list of archaeologists and epigraphers…These men and women …were no match for nimble, expensive attorneys …working for the defence.” I have already dealt with the question of epigraphers in my scholarly research, mentioned above. Let me just make a point here about the prosecutor and the defence lawyer.
As my account of my own experience in the Jerusalem court has clearly shown, it is the Prosecution that has been playing a nimble, tricky game, not the Defence. If one cares to consult the testimony of that Akkadian scholar from the University of the Negev, one will see that the defence lawyer, Mr. Bringer, urged his witness in the cross- examination to say whatever he wished to say. This is in complete contrast to the prosecutor’s stance, Mr. Bahat, who barred me from presenting whatever evidence I wished to present in court. Readers interested in checking this point may wish to consult my book King Jehoash and the Mystery of the Temple of Solomon Inscription, p. 122, where there is a translation of the court transcript.
I happen to be an observant Jew, native to the Middle East, mindful of Jewish customs and values. My views about the political situation in the Middle East are generally known from whatever I have written and published on the subject. In brief, and to focus on the issue at hand, I definitely oppose those who wish to destroy Muslim shrines in order to re-build the Temple. Those who wish to do so are mostly East European fanatic Jews who are foreign to the soil and culture of the Middle East. Further, I have never been in the business of looking for biblical artifacts and inscriptions with the aim of supporting the events narrated in the Hebrew Bible. I do not need any such proof or support for my beliefs. Nor is it appropriate to mix science with politics, or with beliefs.
Towards the end of her article, Burleigh unashamedly states: “Sober and serious biblical scholars need to take steps to shield the public from their more ruthless colleagues.” This is one of the most insipid and outrageous accusations she makes. I assume she would include me personally as one of those ruthless colleagues for doubting the Jehoash text to be a forgery. And she ends her mumbo-jumbo piece with: “The only trouble is, in this field, disinterested individuals are the rarest finds of all.” What does she know of this field of Semitic Epigraphy and of those very few who engage in it? If she is searching for a “disinterested” professional epigrapher, let her look no further – here he is. But she can expect nothing from me but contempt. She also has the gall to speak of ‘characters’, when she herself is shamelessly feeding misinformation and cheap gossip to the general, unsuspecting public.
May God protect and shield us from dishonest and deceptive prosecutors, and from third-rate, nimble, and abusive journalists who prostitute their pens in specialized fields about which they know nothing!
29th December, 2008
Copyright © 2008 by Victor Sasson
By Victor Sasson
A few months ago Oded Golan, the antiquities collector, contacted me via email. He enquired whether I would be willing to testify in court as an expert witness regarding the Jehoash inscription. Having given the request a little thought, I accepted the invitation. Recently I came back from my trip to Jerusalem. A couple of biblical scholars found a brief account of my experience interesting, and one of them even suggested making it public. I thought this was a good idea, and my personal account developed into the length it now has.
My testimony was given on the 26th of October of this year, 2008. My purpose was to defend my reading of the text of the tablet, my own independent research, which I undertook and completed in 2003. The study was published in Ugarit Forschungen 35 in 2004. I should mention that I had never heard of Mr. Oded Golan before 2003, and never had any contact with him, nor met him, prior to the latter part of 2008, when he himself contacted me for the first time.
Prior to my testimony on October 26, the judge in the case, A. Farkash, already had a copy of my CV and a list of my publications, handed to him by the defence lawyer. In addition to my doctoral thesis on the language of Hebrew inscriptions, completed in 1979, I have been publishing on Hebrew and Aramaic inscriptions for about thirty years. My independent research has been unsupported by any institution, even though over the years I have applied for a couple of grants. Epigraphic research – especially of longer texts - for me was, and still is, an irresistible, literary challenge; a literary as well as a scholarly explorative work undertaken for the sheer excitement and love it affords me personally. Not getting funding for my time-consuming research studies granted a sense of freedom from the shackles of being beholden to institutions and individuals. I spoke my mind, and my research has been readily accepted, over the years, by the most influential scholarly journals in the field.
As a witness, I first gave a brief account of my scholarly background. The defence lawyer, Mr. Lior Bringer, asked some relevant questions regarding the Jehoash tablet. I answered his questions truthfully and to the best of my ability. Soon the prosecuting lawyer, Mr. Dan Bahat - a tall, clever-looking fellow - took over, and the cross-examination began. This man, clearly had read my Jehoash research and was intent on treating me – or rather, mistreating me – as an accomplice to a crime. As an expert witness for the defence, sworn to tell the truth in court, I was not at all prepared for the tricky questions, ugly innuendoes, aggressive manner, and cheap legalistic maneuvers that this prosecutor employed throughout my testimony. But he kept saying he was only asking “simple” questions.
Mr. Bahat asked numerous questions regarding the text of the Jehoash tablet, which I answered or tried to answer. Some of his questions were hair-splitting questions, couched in language that sought to mislead or ensnare (this aspect of the cross examination is often blurred or clouded in the printed court transcripts). Often they were deliberately framed in a way difficult to grasp, especially as they were addressed to me in a hostile manner. I did my best to keep cool and collected. When I mentioned further textual evidence from the Book of Chronicles in support of the Jehoash inscription, he objected saying that was not part of my 2003 published research article. I had no idea that I was to stick to that research study. He said he was not prepared for the new piece of evidence I was presenting to the court. I could of course have answered that I was not fully prepared for whatever tricky questions he was asking. His objection to my new evidence proved to me that the prosecution was not interested in the TRUTH, to which I swore to tell in that court. The stance of the prosecutor was that the inscription was a forgery (manufactured by the defendant who was sitting in the courtroom) and he was going to prove this by hook or crook.
One of his desperate attempts at fabricating evidence to support his stance as a prosecutor was to try to pin something on me regarding the Internet and my epigraphic research, when in fact I have never ever published any research on the Internet. Every scholarly article of mine was submitted to a reputable, refereed journal. Mr. Bahat had full knowledge of that, yet he wanted to mention the word Internet for his own mean purposes.
Having finished with his long and arduous questionings and futile attempts to trivialize, confound and confuse, this prosecuting lawyer began reading my article silently, while everyone, including the judge, waited for him to ask a question (these long pauses in the proceedings are not mentioned in the published court transcripts). This went on, I think, for something like fifteen minutes. At one point he asked a question that had nothing to do with epigraphy, a question that I could not fathom at all. I turned to the judge and said so. It’s possible the judge, too, could not understand the question, so he asked the lawyer to repeat it. The purpose of the question was, no doubt, to confuse and disorient. At one point I could not help it but burst into laughter as I heard a thoroughly ridiculous question that Mr. Bahat unashamedly put to me.
When I wanted to quote Ada Yardeni regarding what she had said about the script used in the Jehoash tablet, Mr. Bahat objected. When I wanted to quote Joseph Naveh about palaeography in a 1980 article written by him, the prosecutor objected vehemently, and only with the forceful intervention of the judge I was allowed to do so (in fact the quote from Naveh was already in my 2003 article).
Mr. Bahat, feeling frustrated by an honest and genuine expert on literary Hebrew inscriptions, saw no other way but to turn to petty casuistry and quibbling in order to score some points in court. Even though I had declared that I am an expert on the language of inscriptions, the prosecutor kept harping on palaeography, attempting to show that the mixed script of the Jehoash is a forgery. I pointed out that the Eqron inscription has a mixed script, or a script that is not easy to identify, and yet it is considered by all scholars to be genuine.
At this late juncture in my testimony, he turned to asking utterly nonsensical, hairsplitting questions that drove the judge, at least once, if not twice, to shout angrily, even furiously, at Mr. Bahat, telling him to stop it. The specific issue now was about ostraca, an issue Bahat himself introduced, not I myself. Even though I said I had not researched the specific ostraca Bahat mentioned (and ostraca had nothing to do with my research on the Jehoash text), he kept pestering with questions. Apparently he thought he had found a weakness which he could exploit. The anger displayed by the judge quite surprised me (the judge’s display of anger is not mentioned in the court transcripts). Here is my translation of what the judge shouted at Mr. Bahat:
Judge: Mr. Bahat, this is completely unnecessary! Your last comment was completely unnecessary! Sir, don’t answer me! Your last comment was completely unnecessary regarding an expert witness who is on the witness stand, giving testimony. Excuse me! (Then turning to me) Professor Sasson, you wanted to complete your answer, right? Please do so.
After more than two hours on the stand (in a confining corner of the relatively small courtroom) - at times I had to sit on account of exasperating, convoluted or irrelevant questions and the lack of fresh air - I was finally thanked by the judge. He wished me a Happy New Year. The Jewish new year had just began.
As I have mentioned in my research article on the Jehoash, a governmental appointed committee of sundry scholars can in no way adjudicate the authenticity of an inscription. Public relations and comradeship would play a major part in the process – as in fact it did. Indeed, our Akkadian scholar from the University of the Negev claimed that the committee’s unanimous verdict of forgery was like the miracle of the Septuagint’s translation of the Hebrew Bible, when every member of that committee submitted the same translation! As far as I know, no member of the committee that was appointed in 2004 was a professional epigrapher, someone who has at least published several detailed research studies of major inscriptions over a period of some years. Similarly, a court of law is not the place to ascertain authenticity. A professional lawyer is not, and cannot pretend to be, an epigrapher. The court is a place where the prosecuting lawyer has already passed judgement, and his sole goal is to score legal points at all costs. To establish the authenticity of a controversial epigraphic text may take years and solid, published research by professional epigraphers. Throwing about ‘big’ names from ‘big’ universities in support of a forgery is not the way to go about it – this is in fact what Y. Goren and N.A. Silberman did in their highly dramatic piece, ‘Faking Biblical History’ in Archaeology magazine (56, no. 5, September-October, 2003). That approach is patently false. It is cheap journalese, and it is misleading.
I must comment about the published court transcripts. They are available in Hebrew only. Although I read, write, and speak Hebrew (as well as Arabic) I gave my testimony in English, as all my research was done, written, and published in English. The simultaneous interpreter that was assigned to me did, on the whole, a good job, (I had to correct her once, so did Mr. Bahat, and so did the judge - regarding different matters). I think that my testimony was also recorded on tape. And yet, the published transcripts in Hebrew display misspellings of words and names, misunderstood or garbled sentences, possibly omissions, and so forth. I find this incomprehensible.
Less than a week after I had given my testimony in Jerusalem, I learned that Judge A. Farkash advised the Prosecution to reconsider their case or to drop it altogether. I am tempted to think that my own testimony in the trial contributed something towards that decision.
Of Ossuaries, Forgeries, Export Licences - and
Dr. Victor Sasson
My two-piece essay, ‘The Trial on Trial and Unholy Hoaxes by a Nimble Journalist’, drew two comments by one, Joe Zias, of whom I had never heard before. When I first read those comments, frankly I thought they came from a boorish character, making some crass remarks for the purpose of drawing attention to himself. The two comments were without much substance, finesse, or style. I decided to ignore them. Later on I learned that the man had an official position in
In his first comment, Mr. Zias blundered, mistaking me for a certain antiquities dealer in
In his second comment, he apologised for his mistake. Clearly, he had not read my two-piece personal account carefully before rushing to write his abusive comments. His apology does not change that fact.
We shall soon see how all this is relevant to the sort of official position this man held in
In his first comment, Mr. Zias tells us of his testimony in the
I decided to acquire a copy of the court transcripts, which contain his testimony.
The transcripts are on public record and can be obtained and examined by anyone.
Mr. Zias was in the
WITNESS FOR THE PROSECUTION
Mr. Zias worked for about three decades as curator of antiquities for the Antiquities Authority in
He informs the court that his professional status is that of anthropologist and that he has published scholarly papers on skeletal remains/bones found in ossuaries. His specialization included ancient diseases. He makes it clear he is not an epigrapher and does not research inscriptions.
In his web-site curriculum vitae, he mentions his training in anthropology and in medical issues of human remains. There is mention of some training in archaeology. No mention is made of academic training at the doctorate level in any field.
As mentioned, Mr. Zias was summoned to court to give testimony regarding a specific ossuary.
Scant Modern, and Zero Biblical Hebrew
In his first comment regarding my article, Mr. Zias makes a derogatory remark and then proceeds to say that he had asked the court to give his testimony in English which, he said, was his mother tongue, but that the court refused his request.
After thirty years living in
Mr. Zias complains he had no choice, indeed compelled, to give his testimony in Hebrew. However, anyone who cares to examine the court transcripts will see that he often slipped into using English (and was often assisted by the prosecutor (!) in the case, who translated or paraphrased what Zias attempted to say). And that drew negative comments from the judge himself.
At one point in the cross-examination, the judge himself translated an English sentence spoken by the witness. Zias made the tactless remark: “I want him [the judge] to be my translator.”
When I read that Zias had worked for 25 or 30 years in
Filling in Pre-printed Forms for Export Licences
Having read Mr. Zias’ court testimony in Hebrew (all court testimonies are printed and published in Modern Hebrew only), I discovered that as curator, working for the Antiquities Authority in Jerusalem, he had the responsibility of issuing export licences for antiquities! In other words, this was the position of a person who lived for 30 years in
The defence lawyer grilled the witness on that point.
In his answer, Mr. Zias said he only had to fill in a certain pre-printed, official form in Modern Hebrew!
I found this quite amusing. I imagine readers, too, will feel greatly amused, if not alarmed, at the same time. Mr. Zias’ statement tells us something not only about him personally, but also about the kind of people the Antiquities Authority employ and about the AA itself!
Apparently 25 or 30 years in an official position in
What an enviable official position to hold – with all its prestige, benefits, and immunities!
Feeling entertained, I soon recalled there have been precedents to such great men before: in H.M.S. Pinafore, Sir Joseph, who never ventured to sea, became ruler of the Queen’s Navy by polishing up the door knobs of the Admiralty!
Mr. Zias makes a derogatory remark about my request to give my testimony in English. But my first language is Arabic – Babylonian- Jewish Arabic! The biographical note, attached to my article, mentions that I grew up in
Who are the impostors here? It is a good question to ask.
Now although I myself can read, write, and speak fluent Modern Hebrew (which I learned as a foreign language), I gave my testimony in English because I had to discuss technical, epigraphic issues based on my publications, all of which were conceived, written, and published in English. (I learned English also as a foreign language and read Shakespeare, Alexander Pope, and Swift as a teenager, on my own, using a dictionary, even before I could speak proper English).
A Good Friend of Biblical Antiquities Dealers
Mr. Zias was not only acquainted with Jewish dealers of antiquities, like the one in
“I had a friendly relationship with him,” he stated in the cross-examination.
One day – in 1990 - Mr. Zias was on Via Dolorosa in Arab Jerusalem and, he said, he “happened” to see Mahmood abu-Shakrah, who invited him in for tea. “I knew him from the 1970’s”, the witness said. He spoke highly of him, saying he was an educated Arab dealer of antiquities.
Mr. abu-Shakrah then pointed at an ossuary lying on the floor of his shop, and said it was his “pension”, which could only mean that it was a precious item, which he aimed to sell and make huge profits, after which he would go into retirement. Later on in the cross-examination we understand that the ossuary had an inscription, which faced a wall. When the dealer showed the inscription to his guest, Mr. Zias told his host he could not read it since it was written in Aramaic!
“I am not an epigrapher,” Zias told him. The inscription of course was very short, containing several words only. Zias then enquired, “What does it say?” His Arab friend answered, “James son of Joseph”.
So much for an official who issued export licences for biblical antiquities but could not even read his own name on an inscription that contained several words! Mr. Bringer, the defence lawyer, poked fun at Zias, asking his witness how it was he could not read his own name, Joe (=Joseph or Yosef, in Hebrew and Aramaic, written in a more developed script), when anyone outside in the street could easily read it?
The witness answered: “I have a problem with Hebrew”, and “Epigraphy is not my field”.
The lawyer insisted: “But you issue export licences!”
An Antiquities Dealer who is not Afraid of an AA Official
The cross-examination now turned to the precious ossuary that Mr. Zias saw at the antiquities dealer’s shop in 1990. The defence lawyer, Mr. Bringer, asked his witness: “How is it that antiquities dealer [Mr. abu-Shakrah] was not afraid saying this to an official of the AA?”
The lawyer, of course, was referring to the “pension”, which the apparently precious ossuary signified. He kept asking this question, without getting a satisfactory answer. But for an employee of the Antiquities Authority, whose responsibilities included the issuing of export licences, to socialise intimately with an antiquities-dealer, looks very much like the police fraternizing with members of the underworld!
I do not know if that particular ossuary was the famous ‘James brother of Jesus’ ossuary or not, but that was the impression I myself got from reading the court transcripts. Needless to say, one should not jump to any conclusions but let the judge in the case form his opinion, based on the testimonies given.
We must always give this witness for the prosecution the benefit of the doubt – even if he himself is always ready and willing to lynch others.
Joe Zias and Mr. abu-Shakrah’s German Wife
At a later stage in the cross-examination, Joe Zias stated that he had had communications with abu-Shakrah’s wife, who was German. He said he had believed she was a physician and so he had contacts with her, discussing various diseases. Later, he said, he discovered he was mistaken. She turned out not to be a physician at all.
Well, either he blundered, or she purposely misled him - one of the two.
One day, he relates, Mrs. abu-Shakrah came to the AA to see him in his office. She needed his help. She told him she was about to board an airplane, but was arrested because she was carrying two suitcases packed with antiquities.
What kind of help she wanted from Zias, we do not know. He did not elaborate.
Her husband, said Zias, was reliable, but “she was caught red-handed”. It appears (according to Zias) those items were not genuine. On the other hand, if those items were replicas for sale, why did Zias say she was caught “red-handed”? (Hebrew: ‘l ham – lit. ‘in the heat of the act’). This part of his testimony is definitely murky.
The defence lawyer did not press on with further questions. The matter was acutely embarrassing. Mr. Bringer realised that further questioning would lead nowhere - and it was late in the proceedings, anyway.
One can imagine the dramatic, theatrical aspect of this episode of abu-Shakrah’s wife coming to the AA to seek help from one of their officials! Not an ordinary official, let us remember, but one that issues export licences!
Mr. Zias Makes a False Statement
Joe Zias made a false statement that negated what I had said in my own expert testimony – in October 2008 - and what I have repeated in my published personal account, in ‘The Trial on Trial’ essay.
Mr. Bahat, the prosecutor, wanted to associate me with publishing un-refereed research on the Internet. I answered that I had never published any research study on the Internet. My research studies were all submitted to internationally respectable scholarly journals, refereed publications, and were published by them. Mr. Zias twists my statement in my own essay, and claims that the prosecutor asked me about “something” (i.e. research) that I had published on the Internet.
Very much like the prosecutor in the case, Mr. Zias plays a dishonest, tricky game in order to mislead.
In his first comment, he talks about the Akkadian scholar from the University of the
Mr. Zias was clearly shaken by the defence lawyer because he was not giving satisfactory, truthful answers to quite legitimate questions - as we can see from his own testimony. When I myself gave testimony in October 2008, the prosecutor, Mr. Bahat, did his best to confound, confuse, and mislead with irrelevant questions, which even the judge, A. Farkash, found objectionable and had to reprimand the prosecutor (see my ‘The Trial on Trial’).
Joe Zias - “A Liar”?
During the cross-examination we learn that Mr. Zias at one time sued his employers, the Antiquities Authority! He gave no further details and we do not know the precise reasons for the friction between the two sides.
Were they unhappy with him? Did they want to sack him? We do not know.
We also learn that he had sought to sue the editor of Biblical Archaeological Review (BAR) but was advised (according to his own statement) that such legal action would cost him more than what he would be able to collect in damages (assuming he would succeed in his suit). That editor (who happens to be a lawyer himself) had called Joe Zias “a liar” – i.e. that he had lied about the ossuary (presumably the one mentioned earlier). Mr. Bringer, the defence lawyer, grilled his witness on this point.
From a random check of the Web, one can see that this man is addicted to posting
negative comments, left and right, about all sorts of people and issues. This seems to be an irresistible occupation for him. For a specialist on ancient diseases, Zias is clearly suffering from some undiagnosed modern ailment, possibly some computer virus.
Joe Zias - An Epigrapher?
In his first comment, Mr. Zias states the following: “From the point of epigraphy it [the Jehoash inscription] may look good to the naked eye however as Yuval Goren has shown, under the microscope it’s of recent manufacture.”
Here is a former curator and keeper of Biblical Antiquities who could not read his own name on that ossuary that was discussed earlier, lecturing on the Jehoash inscription and pretending to be an epigrapher.
Is this the way epigraphers do research, using their naked eye only? This shows such a gaping ignorance of what professional epigraphical research is!
Regarding the physical aspects of the stone, Professor Dr. Wolfgang E. Krumbein, a world leading authority on patina formation, has determined that Yuval Goren and the AA scientific team have not proved the Jehoash inscription a forgery. And I myself have demonstrated in my own research that all the claims of forgery are easily refutable, and that the text could well be an ancient copy of an original text.
There is a world of difference between concluding that the Jehoash text is definitely forgery, and concluding that it may be genuine.
A “Game of Fraud and Forgery”
Mr. Zias speaks of “this game of fraud and forgery which has cast a shadow on the world of archaeology”.
Speaking of forgeries, how did this man, whose level of Modern Hebrew appears to approximate that of a junior in a primary school, and whose Biblical Hebrew a zero, manage to forge his way into the career of curator of Biblical Antiquities and keeper of the Dead Sea Scrolls?
If this is not a forged miracle - what is it then?
A Lament and a Prayer
What a desecration of the Holy Hebrew Scriptures at the hand of Cossacks and Tartars! What an offence to the cherished memory of the Hebrew Prophets and to their scribes who toiled, generation after generation, copying their fiery, divine words!
What an insult to ancient Middle Eastern Jewry who are the originators and preservers of these precious, holy texts!
Our God and God of our Fathers protect and shield us from swindlers, scoffers, and impersonators who have defiled thy sacred words!
(Originally written in March 2009; revised and enlarged in April.)
Copyright © 2009 by Victor Sasson
Dr. Victor Sasson grew up in