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Tag Archives | Judaism

Skulls in Jewish Rituals

Around 20 CE, Herod Antipas, the ruler of Galilee and a contemporary of Yeshua who played a part in his execution as well as the excution of John the Baptist, built a new city called Tiberias in honor of his mentor, the Roman emperor Tiberius. His father, Herod the Great, was known for building beautiful cities and the son wanted to match that. Some scholars suggest that Yeshua, who was from the nearby Nazareth, must have worked in the construction of the this city between 18 and 23 CE.[1]

But the son’s construction projects did not rival the father’s accomplishments which included expanding the temple at Jerusalem, building the fortress at Masada and the port city of Caesarea Maritima. There was another problem too with the city of  Tiberias. During the construction of the city, they hit upon a cemetery, which was destroyed. But when time came to move in the residents, devout Jews stayed away, since they considered this impure. So some Galileans and poor immigrants were moved in.[2]

According to Jewish religious law, it is forbidden to touch human remains. In the film The Body, when Olivia Williams finds a skeleton, supposedly of Yeshua, there is a scene where conservative Jews make a huge issue about it and start pelting her and Antonio Banderas. Thus it is odd to see a news item with the title Jews used human skulls in Talmudic era. Jews were not supposed to be Kapalikas.

BAR readers already know about the more than two thousand magic incantation bowls that have survived from third – seventh-century C.E. Jewish communities in Babylonia. The incantation bowls were made at the same time and in the very communities that produced the most intricate, complex and revered accomplishment of rabbinic Judaism, the Babylonian Talmud. Although some have deemed the incantation literature to be inconsistent with the spirit of the Talmud, recent research has shown it to be, rather, complementary and representative of aspects of life reflected within the Talmud. [Rare Magic Inscription on Human Skull]

It is believed that these skulls were used in ceremonies – to scare away ghosts and demons – though it violated laws.

But violating Jewish laws is not new. For example, even though the Israelites were supposed to worship Yahweh only, they worshipped the fertility goddess Asherah and the Canaanite God Baal. Even Jesus violated the sabbath law


[1] Jesus the Galilean By David A. Fiensy
[2] Herod Antipas By Harold W. Hoehner

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New Exodus Theory

Then comes the major event of the parting of the Red Sea. It seems the Hebrew word, Yam Suf was mistranslated as Red Sea while it actually means Reed Sea. Instead of looking for the sea scholars should have been looking for a lake. Based on the new evidence, the film makers find the location of the Reed Sea, a lake currently dried up, due to the Suez Canal. Again, the parting of the lake is attributed to the seismic activity.[Exodus Decoded (1) | varnam]

Besides this, archaeology too has not found any evidence of the Exodus, in the scale mentioned in the Bible.

That is one of the conclusions of the two hour NOVA documentary, Bible’s Buried Secrets, which aired on PBS on Nov 18th. This conclusion is not revolutionary; it has been suggested before, most recently by Dr. Zahi Hawass, Egypt’s chief archaeologist.

The Exodus, the most repeated story in the Hebrew Bible immortalized by Charlton Heston, suggests that about six hundred thousand men and their families escaped Egypt and reached the promised land. A century of archaeological work has found no such evidence but has found that during the time of the Exodus, dated between the Merneptah Stele (1275 B.C.E) and the Zayit Stone (1208 B.C.E), the promised land, Canaan, had just 25 settlements with 3000 – 5000 inhabitants.[Bible’s Buried Secrets (1/2) | varnam]

Still that has not prevented people from coming up with theories of the partition of the Red Sea.

Accepting the biblical account as a “possible ‘qualitative’ description of an event,” Florida State oceanographer Doron Nof set out to investigate whether the parting of the Red Sea is “plausible from a physical point of view.” Using a common phenomenon called wind set-down effect, he found that “a northwesterly wind of 20 m/s blowing for 10-14 h is sufficient to cause a sea level drop of about 2.5m.” Such a drop in sea level, Nof speculates, might have exposed an underwater ridge, which the Israelites crossed as if it were dry land. Although the event is plausible, Nof estimated that the likelihood of such a storm occurring in that particular place and time of year is less than once every 2,400 years.[La scienza e i miracoli dell’Esodo]

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The Imaginary Essenes?

The History Channel documentary on the Lost Years of Jesus mentioned a possibility that the concept of baptism came to Jesus when he and John the Baptist lived among the Essenes and that later the Essenes moved to Qumran in the West Bank from Jerusalem due to the fear of Romans. The documentary also suggested a theory that Jesus was a revolutionary fighting the Romans and those activities have been left out of the Bible since it would be difficult to circulate such a document while being governed by the Romans due to which there is no mention of what he did between the ages of 12 and 30.

We know that the Essenes consisting of about 75 men, moved to Qumran, a desolate desert site, sometime between 130 and 100 B.C to escape Roman persecution. It is believed that they lived in a monastery, whose ruins are present even now, and wrote the Dead Sea Scrolls, the only surviving texts of the Hebrew Bible written before 100 AD.[The Virtual Qumran | varnam]

According to John Marco Allergro, a Biblical scholar, who had access to the Dead Sea Scrolls, Jesus was a “personification of the Messianic expectations of the members of an extremist Jewish sect of Qumran in the first century of Christianity.”The Essenes, besides sharing a messianic belief, lived in a community embracing poverty and abstinence from worldly pleasures.

So far so good.

Now according to one Biblical scholar, the Essenes never existed: they were fabricated by the 1st century historian Flavius Josephus.

Elior contends that Josephus, a former Jewish priest who wrote his history while being held captive in Rome, “wanted to explain to the Romans that the Jews weren’t all losers and traitors, that there were many exceptional Jews of religious devotion and heroism. You might say it was the first rebuttal to anti-Semitic literature.”

As Elior explains, the Essenes make no mention of themselves in the 900 scrolls found by a Bedouin shepherd in 1947 in the caves of Qumran, near the Dead Sea. “Sixty years of research have been wasted trying to find the Essenes in the scrolls,” Elior tells TIME. “But they didn’t exist. This is legend on a legend.” [Scholar Claims Dead Sea Scrolls ‘Authors’ Never Existed – TIME]

So if Essenes did not write the DSS, then who did it? According to Elior, it was written by Sadducees, a sect descending from the high priest Zadok. Another scholar, Norman Golb, too has claimed that the DSS were not written by the Essenes. He also claimed that other scholars are trying to silence him.

Instead of an imaginary group called Essenses, a priestly class wrote it. So what’s the big deal you may wonder. The problem is with the behavior of the group: while Jews are asked to “go forth and multiply”, this group violated that by remaining celibate. This contrarian behavior, by thousands, never found any mention in Jewish texts of that period.

Then it was pointed out that Philo of Alexandria who lived a generation before Josephus and Pliny the Elder, who was a contemporary, too wrote about Essenes. Elior responded.

Are any Essenes mentioned in the Dead Sea Scrolls? The answer is: no.
Are any Essenes mentioned in this name in contemporary literature written in the Land of Israel (other then Josephus/philo/pliny written elsewhere) such as the Apocrypha, sages, or the New Testament? The answer is: no.

Is it reasonable to assume that thousands of people had lived as celibates in the Land of Israel for many generations, as the well-known Greek and Latin sources suggest, while no reference to this prohibited existence, which contradicts the first biblical law of “be fruitful and multiply”, will be found in any Hebrew or Aramaic text?

Is it possible that thousands of people had lived in communities of communal residence and communal money with no private property and not a word will be found about it in any Hebrew source? [Rachel Elior Responds to Her Critics]

A new book – Memory and Oblivion – coming out next month, will give more details than what can be gathered from the press reports.

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Bible's Buried Secrets (2/2)

Read Part 1

3. Monotheism did not happen instantly. (contd.)

Still the Israelites practiced polytheism,worshiping not just Yahweh, but also the fertility goddess Asherah and the Canaanite God Baal, though they were not supposed to. Whenever a major calamity fell on the Israelites, like the Assyrian invasion in 722 B.C.E and the Babylonian invasion followed by the destruction of the First Temple in 586 B.C.E it was blamed on polytheism.

Israelites were reminded that they had broke the covenant with God and hence were incurring his wrath. Still this was not taken seriously till the time the Babylonians exiled the Caananites. It was during this exile that one of the scribes of that era, known as “P”, took all the previous revisions and created the present version of the Bible. The documentary suggests that the Abraham story was created then, by this scribe, to enforce the concept of the covenant. The scribe lived in Babylon and Abraham was placed in the nearby Ur; Abraham’s goal was to reach the promised land, so was the dream of the exiles.

It was also during the exile that the observances like sabbath were emphasized. Israelites learned to pray in groups and to worship without a temple, king or priests. This was the formation of modern Judaism.

4. Archaeology disproves other events as well

Following the Exodus, as per the Bible, Joshua takes the Israelites into Canaan through a military conquest. Archaeology has found evidence of destruction in various settlements which seem to agree with the Bible. But on dating the sites, it was found to happen much before Exodus and among the 31 sites listed by the Bible, just a few showed signs of war.

Similarly there is no evidence of the First Temple as well which made Ahmed Qurei, the Palestinian Authority official leading all peace talks with Israel to provocatively say that it was a Jewish invention. The problem is that the First temple lies below the third holiest site in Islam which makes archaeology impossible. The Bible has a detailed description of the temple and in fact there is a temple which matches this description at Ain Dara, in modern-day Syria.

Sometimes there is a kernel of truth in myths. But as we go back in time it becomes difficult to find even this kernel. The documentary says that, “Genesis is, for the most part, a compilation of myths, creation stories, things like that, and to find a historical core there is very difficult.”

5. Archaeology vs Scripture

While the documentary suggests that the concept of one God was evolved during the Babylonian exile, in fact for a brief period in Egypt, the Pharaoh Akhenaten had this concept of One God and he ruled before the time frame suggested for the Exodus? Is it possible that the small number of people who fled Egypt carried with them the seeds of this story? This possibility was not raised in the documentary.

While archaeology disproved many Biblical narratives, there are a few places where the text agrees, like in the case of the House of David. There was scepticism about King David, but on a victory stele dedicated by the king of Damascus, the words, “I slew mighty kings who harnessed thousands of chariots and thousands of horsemen. I killed the king of the House of David.” were found which makes David, the earliest Biblical figure to be confirmed by archaeology. He lived around 1000 B.C.E, as a petty warlord of a small chiefdom with few settlements.

Archaeology also shuts up the sceptics who claim that the entire Bible was an invention. A silver scroll with a Priestly Benediction earlier then the Dead Sea Scrolls by 400 years have been found. And those scrolls contain the word – Yahweh.

While this program enraged certain believers – for using government funding to prove there was no God – there is consensus, with some quibbles, that this program was a fairly accurate summary of a century of Biblical Studies.


Was the Bible, a book of faith, meant to be investigated like this as a historical document? According to William Dever, Professor Emeritus of the University of Arizona

We want to make the Bible history. Many people think it has to be history or nothing. But there is no word for history in the Hebrew Bible. In other words, what did the biblical writers think they were doing? Writing objective history? No. That’s a modern discipline. They were telling stories. They wanted you to know what these purported events mean.

And Carol Meyers, an archaeologist and professor of religion at Duke University

Too often in modern western thinking we see things in terms of black and white, history or fiction, with nothing in between. But there are
other ways of understanding how people have recorded events of their past. There’s something called mnemohistory, or memory history, that I find particularly useful in thinking about biblical materials. It’s not like the history that individuals may have of their own families, which tends to survive only a generation or two. Rather, it’s a kind of collective cultural memory.

Postscript: The website for this program is a treasure trove of information. The entire documentary as well as the transcript is available online. Besides this there are interviews with the scholars who talk about the writers of the Bible, foundation of Judaism, Archeology of the Hebrew Bible, Moses and the Exodus, The Palace of David and the Origins of the Written Bible. There is also an interactive timeline and a whole bunch of video extras.

Update (Dec 9): DIY Scholar has a list of online resources which will enhance the understanding of this period.

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Bible's Buried Secrets (1/2)

(An 11th century Bible)

There is no evidence for Exodus as suggested by the Bible. That is one of the conclusions of the two hour NOVA documentary, Bible’s Buried Secrets, which aired on PBS on Nov 18th. This conclusion is not revolutionary; it has been suggested before, most recently by Dr. Zahi Hawass, Egypt’s chief archaeologist.

The Exodus, the most repeated story in the Hebrew Bible immortalized by Charlton Heston, suggests that about six hundred thousand men and their families escaped Egypt and reached the promised land. A century of archaeological work has found no such evidence but has found that during the time of the Exodus, dated between the Merneptah Stele (1275 B.C.E) and the Zayit Stone (1208 B.C.E), the promised land, Canaan, had just 25 settlements with 3000 – 5000 inhabitants.

Does this mean that the story of Exodus is pure mythology.? The documentary says it is possible that a few people escaped from Egypt, but they were not Israelites, but Canaanite slaves whose story survived as poetry and was transcribed after 1000 B.C.E.

This deconstruction of the Exodus was not the primary goal of the documentary, but just a causality while finding the origins of the Israelites and their concept of one God in a polytheistic world. In this journey which combines Bible and archaeology, many such articles of faith were demolished much to the angst of certain believers who called for withdrawing government funding for PBS.

Many Biblical scholars commented that there was nothing new in the program and it just summarized a century of scholarship, but for the lay person who is interested in the confluence of history, archaeology and religion, there was much to learn.

1. Who were the Israelites?

The Israelites were not migrants from outside, but natives of Canaan. The original state of Canaan had a social collapse, not by Joshua’s invasion, but following a conflict between the elite and the commoners. Around this time there was the collapse of the Mesopotamian and Egyptian empire as well. The Israelites rise after this and they are made up of Canaan commoners, the few escaped slaves from Egypt, and dispersed people and there is a rapid rise in population from five thousand to 45 thousand in 200 years by 1000 B.C.E.

Looking for a new identity, radically different from the oppressive ancient Canaan society, these new Canaanites adopted stories of Moses, Abraham and Joshua to symbolize freedom, deliverance and conquest. To distinguish themselves from their polytheistic past, they came up with a monotheistic God, adopted from a desert people called Shashu.

2. The Bible was written by humans.

Noah’s flood, in one page lasts 40 days and 40 nights and 150 days in another. Sometimes Abraham calls God, Yahweh, elsewhere Elohim. All these suggest that there were multiple authors for the Bible which challenges the view that Moses wrote the first five books.

Mahabharata by tradition acknowledges this type of revision.

The epic itself claims to have been originally just 8,800 verses composed by Krishna Dvaipayana Vyasa and called the Jaya. Later, it became 24,000 verses, called the Bharata, when it was recited by Vaishampayana. Finally, it was recited as the 100,000-versed epic (the Mahabharata) by Ugrashravas, the son of Lomaharshana. Thus, the tradition acknowledges that the Mahabharata grew in stages. [The Date Of The Mahabharata War]

In Biblical Studies, the Documentary Hypothesis states that the Bible was edited by scribes over a period of time. Based on language, the oldest one was found to be the book of Exodus, similar to how mandalas 2-7 are considered the oldest in Rig Veda and 1 and 10 the youngest.

3. Monotheism did not happen instantly.

While the ancient Egyptians, Greeks, and Babylonians and far away Indians worshipped many gods Israelites discovered the concept of one God. Where did they come up with this idea which survives to this day?

The answer lies in the journey of a small number of Caananite slaves from Egypt. They passed through a place called Midian (Jordan & Saudi Arabia), where a group of people known as the Shasu lived. According to the Egyptian texts, the Shasu lived in a place which was pronounced Yahu, which is similar to Yahweh, the patron god of Israel.

It is in Midian, according to the Bible that Moses first meets Yahweh in the form of a burning bush. When the Egyptian Caananites met the native Caananites, they told this story and since it was a powerful metaphor for freedom, it was adopted into the canon. The slaves attributed their freedom to the Midian God.

(to be continued..)

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