Friday, July 27, 2018


This is a review of the initial episodes of the PBS series Civilizations (2018). My review of the complete series is available at Hyperallergic.

PBS is certainly no stranger to airing British programming. The latest in its long line of British imports is the BBC art history series Civilisations. And this series certainly feelsEnglish: It was inspired by the 1969 BBC series Civilisation, with British presenter Kenneth Clark. The new series has broadened its horizons beyond Clark’s European focus to a global scope, as indicated by the pluralized title and its use of multiple presenters. But all of them — Simon Schama, Mary Beard, and David Olusoga — are British.

Still, as with other British imports, this one has not come over wholesale to the U.S. Before the first episode aired, there were reports that Mary Beard was cut from her episodes. The reports appear to have started with an offhand comment from Beard herself, suggesting that American audiences didn’t want to see a “creaky old lady.” But it appears that, this time, sexism may not be at fault. All of the presenters’ screen time is cut significantly, and over the first two episodes there did not seem to be any significant difference in the amount of time we hear from Schama versus Beard (in the third episode, Beard’s screen time may have been cut further). These cuts are part of larger differences in direction between the British and American versions, which the BBC and PBS had apparently planned from the beginning. This included giving the PBS version an American narrator, Liev Schreiber, who serves to provide a unity to the three different presenters’ episodes, and I think to Americanize them.

What about the substance of the episodes themselves? Let’s compare the first two.

The first episode (“The Second Moment of Creation”) suffers from the fact that its writer-presenter, Simon Schama, does not specialize in any of the periods or material covered. It focuses mainly on ancient and often prehistoric art, while Schama’s expertise is in modern European history. So it is no surprise that the episode presents a great deal of outdated information and ideas as well as simplistic views of the distant past, ideas and views that are sometimes merely comforting and pat, but sometimes offensive and disturbing. When discussing the impressive ancient site of Petra, now in Jordan, Schama uses a discussion of its abandonment to illustrate part of the rise and fall of civilizations: “By the time of the Muslim conquests in the seventh century, Petra had been reduced by a series of earthquakes to little more than a dry and empty ruin.” But research over the last 25 years has shown that Petra was inhabited and thriving throughout the Byzantine period (fourth to early seventh centuries) and even beyond

Schama repeats a metaphor of the torch of civilizations, being passed on from one group of people to another — a metaphor critiqued by anthropologist Eric Wolf in Europe and the People without Historyas misleading and stale . . . in 1982 (I owe this reference to archaeologist Dimitri Nakassis). “Civilization” becomes oddly restricted not merely to art but to subjectively defined high art, with the many other cultures not judged to have such art conveniently ignored. And this judgment repeatedly emphasizes the centrality of Europe or “the West.” After a discussion of Paleolithic cave art, we get a brief detour to South Africa: “The culture of the San bushmen has endured for tens of thousands of years, providing a living connection to a distant hunter-gatherer past. And their art offers clues to the birth of the creative impulse and modern human self-consciousness.” This is a kind of amateur anthropology favored by people like Jared Diamond but rejected by scholars: modern hunter-gatherers are not “living fossils” but have evolved in their own right. Even worse, we immediately hear: “But it’s back in Europe that we find an object that may embody our earliest understanding of perfection.” For Schama at least, this object is La Dame de Brassempouy, the head of an ivory figurine of a woman, carved more than 20,000 years ago. “We have, right in front of us, the dawn of the idea of beauty.” This is more than just exaggeration and improbability, the idea that we have captured this exact moment, given our highly fragmentary evidence for the nature of life in the Stone Age. The presentation suggests that current-day, backwards Africa has value only for shining light on our own European past, but Stone Age Europe is advanced, looking forward to our present.

Simon Schama with the Lady of Brassempouy: “the dawn of the idea of beauty”

Schama’s episode was followed by “How Do We Look?”, featuring classicist Mary Beard. Beard warned that the American versions of her episodes are more “anodyne” than the British ones. It’s easy to see why. We hear of the many modern echoes of Egyptian pharaoh Ramesses II’s use of gigantic statues of himself to project power: Sisi (one of “Egypt’s modern pharaohs”), Stalin, Mao. All of these are foreign dictators — the other. Even the odd inclusion of a statue of Jesus (as an example of “giant sculptures of Jesus who gaze down upon the faithful”) is of the Christ the Redeemer in Rio de Janeiro. We are never shown anything closer to home, although there are many examples at hand, from Mount Rushmore to Christ of the Ozarks. But it is as we are told of artists working to counter this dangerous use of the human form that we return to something more familiar: a British sculptor, Antony Gormley (his 66-foot Angel of the North is called “a monument to embody the people”). Not long after, Schreiber describes the “revolution” in ancient Greek art, praising the “world’s first democracy,” and describing it as the roots of “Western civilization.” Just as in Schama’s episode, the presentation here is thoroughly Eurocentric. The view is summed up perfectly by art critic Jonathan Jones in his brief appearance: “I think they [the Greeks] consciously created an art of something called civilization.”

Christ of the Ozarks, Eureka Springs, Arkansas; photo by Jeff Weese via Flickr 

But even the American version of Beard’s episode points to something more than this typically Eurocentric story. We see this already in the title, “How Do We Look?”. It is a pun, referring both to how we appear to others (indicating the episode’s focus on the human form), and to how we see, in particular how we see art (indicating the episode’s interest in the history of how artworks have been received). Much of the episode engages with recent work in reception history, feminist scholarship, and postcolonialism. Here at least, “Western civilization” is not a fixed entity extending back to ancient times, but a tradition invented fairly recently. We are told how high art in the modern West as an expression of power, one used in by the colonial European powers around the world. And we see a vivid example of this in the Olmec Wrestler. Once viewed as the pinnacle of achievement of Olmec art in ancient Mexico, it has since been determined to be a forgery – one whose features are less like other works of Olmec art than like classical sculpture. Western ways of seeing art have greatly influenced how we see the rest of the world, even how we try to invent it.

Mary Beard discusses the influence of the 18th-century art historian Johann Winckelmann on how we see the Apollo Belvedere and Western art in general.

In these ways, Beard’s episode strongly echoes another decades-old BBC program, 1972’s Ways of Seeing with John Berger (as suggested to me by art historian Shannon Steiner). This is particularly true in Beard’s emphasis of the ways that we see art in general, and the specific focus on the female nude and the way men have seen her, which Beard extends back from Berger’s Renaissance beginnings to Praxiteles. Berger’s series is often understood, though I’m not sure there’s direct evidence of this, as a response to and critique of Clark’s Civilisation, which had been broadcast just three years earlier. Beard’s presentation contrasts with Schama’s in a similar way, even if not as innovative or engaging as the 1970s series.

Unlike Schama, Beard focuses more on periods and places within her expertise: the classical world and its modern reception. So it is not surprising that Beard often provides the best moments in her episodes, while probably the best – and certainly the best informed – moments of Schama’s come when we hear from the experts, such as Jack Davis and Sharon Stocker on their recent excavations of the Bronze Age site of Pylos in Greece. Combining deep knowledge and theoretical engagement, Beard’s presence is somewhat subversive. But her presence is not just undermining our received ideas about Western civilization. It is undermining the image of civilization presented elsewhere in the series – including in the American version of “How Do We Look?” In other words, Beard’s appearances subvert her own episode.

The series has some strong assets. The imagery and camera work are often stunning. The presenters are engaging personalities, though Schama can be overdramatic. It’s a shame that, to date, the series has largely wasted these advantages, using them and some new discoveries to tell a tired, old, comfortable story about ourselves.

Thursday, June 28, 2018

First Century Mark and Nineteenth Century Moses

Abraham Shalom Yahuda as a young man.

One of the many effects that the Dead Sea Scrolls had was to lead some scholars to call for a reconsideration of the infamous Shapira Strips – the leather strips on which an ancient version of Deuteronomy was said to be written; which Moses Shapira had tried to sell to the British Museum in 1883 for a million pounds; and which scholars had universally denounced as a forgery. Menachem Mansoor of the University of Wisconsin made the front page of the New York Times in 1956 with a call to “reopen” the case. Jacob Leib Teicher, lecturer in rabbinics at Cambridge, argued that they were genuine ancient scrolls in the Times Literary Supplement a year later. Far from every scholar thought they were worth reconsidering, of course. Shortly after the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls, W.F. Albright dismissed any comparison with Shapira’s strips: “it should be emphasized that there is nothing whatever in common between them except the fact that texts of the Hebrew Bible written in ancient scripts are involved [emphasis in original].[1] Later, Mansoor was personally criticized for his views by scholars like Moshe Goshen-Gottstein and Oskar Rabinowicz.

In 1965, the eccentric Dead Sea Scrolls expert John Allegro published The Shapira Affair, another call to reassess the strips. Allegro’s book was appropriately the subject of criticism, if the tone was overly harsh, in a length review in Jewish Quarterly Review by Rabinowitz.[2] Among the many points Rabinowicz made was that Allegro was too quick to take Shapira’s story of how he found out about the strips at face value. Shapira, after all, had made a career out of dealing with forgeries and other dubious material (including Torah scrolls from Yemen that were probably stolen from synagogues and communities there); and he had given not one story of how he first heard of the strips, but three. Rabinowicz’s counters to Allegro here are correct. Shapira was unreliable. Rabinowicz even quotes biblical scholar Herman Guthe’s 1883 book on the Shapira Strips on not trusting what Middle Eastern antiquities dealers have to say about the merchandise they are trying to sell. But then Rabinowicz turns around and spends three pages quoting what he presented as the true story of the forgery – from the mouth of Shapira’s apparent accomplice Salim. Salim gave a lengthy account of how he helped Shapira forge the strips, repeating some information that was then widely known or believed, but adding much new information: in this account it is Salim who appears to be the master, teaching his student Shapira how to age the leather, for example.

If Shapira is (correctly!) seen as an untrustworthy source, then why believe his accomplice Salim? But it is worse than this. The account quoted by Rabinowicz was from an article by the Palestinian Jewish scholar Abraham S. Yahuda: according to Yahuda, he met a man claiming to be Salim in Palestine in 1902, 19 years after the Shapira affair. And Yahuda’s article was not published until 42 years(!) after this meeting.[3] Is Yahuda working from memory here? If so, how reliable is his memory? This is not an idle point, since Yahuda gets some details of his story wrong. He mistakes the American consul Selah Merrill for his wife Phila – his second wife of two years, who had died in 1870. He places the Semitic scholar George A. Barton at the University of Pennsylvania, where he did not teach until 1922 (in 1902 he was at Bryn Mawr). Is Yahuda telling his readers the truth? We have reason to wonder, when Yahuda claims to have been involved in a conspiracy to smuggle a supposedly ancient sarcophagus out of the country, until Yahuda himself discovered it to be a forgery. And when the point of Yahuda’s tale of his encounter with Salim is to serve as background for an odd, lengthy attempt to undermine the authenticity of the Mesha Stele, universally accepted as a genuine antiquity. Is Salim embellishing his own role here? The effects of distant memory or outright lies, or something in between, are hard to judge over the course of the 61 years between the Shapira affair and the publication of Yahuda’s article.

It is remarkable that Yahuda’s eccentric article was ever published by Jewish Quarterly Review. It is even more remarkable that a scholarly review would cite it as counterpoint to Shapira’s claim. But what we see here is something all too familiar: the rush to accept a dubious story or source as correct if it fits in any way with our preconceptions, and if it is critical of whom we dislike. Rabinowicz dismissed Shapira’s questionable account because Rabinowicz already believed the strips to be fake and because the account reflected positively on Shapira; but he accepted Salim’s (or Yahuda’s) questionable claims because it reinforced his belief that the strips were fake and because it reflected negatively on Shapira. I am not trying to suggest that the Shapira Strips were anything other than forgeries. I am only suggesting that both Shapira’s accounts and Salim’s detailed claims are worthless here, and neither should have been quoted approvingly for three pages in a scholarly review. The previously known elements of Salim’s story can be cited from other sources; and those not previously known cannot be corroborated. As a source Salim is no more reliable than Shapira.

I was reminded of this strange episode with the latest news of the supposed First Century Mark. Since 2012, rumors circulated of a fragmentary copy of the Gospel of Mark dating to the first century – a remarkably early copy that would be of both huge religious and huge scholarly significance. It was rumored that Steve Green, president of Hobby Lobby and director of the Museum of the Bible, owned or was looking to purchase this fragment. So it came as a surprise when the Egypt Exploration Society (EES) announced this past May that the fragment was actually a papyrus from the site of Oxyrhynchus in Egypt, one that they owned and had recently published, and one that dated not to the first century but to the late second or early third century instead.

When Evangelical Textual Criticism blog contributor Elijah Hixson posted about this case, Scott Carroll – who had worked for the Museum of the Bible for several years and helped the Greens acquire their large collection of antiquities – left a comment that Dirk Obbink (a prominent papyrologist at Cambridge who has also been associated with the Greens) was trying to sell this fragment to the Green family in 2011 and again in 2013. The comment seemed to conflict with the EES announcement, but it seemed questionable on several fronts. Papyrologist Roberta Mazza, an EES trustee, and the EES itself both insisted that they had always owned the papyrus and had never offered it for sale. Scott Carroll, meanwhile, is infamous for being an unreliable source  Even worse, the online comment was merely from someone claiming to be Scott Carroll, but whose identity was unconfirmed. (But see update below.)

Nevertheless, several scholars rushed to believe the purported claims outright, or at least to give them serious consideration. Why the suspension of critical thinking? It appears that the answer is simply that the comments reflected poorly on the evangelical Museum of the Bible and their associate Dirk Obbink, both of whom are already – understandably – criticized by many academics for a lack of concern for ethics and legality in studying and acquiring ancient texts. But this alone does not mean that unsubstantiated claims about Obbink and the Greens, from an account claiming to be someone known as an unreliable source, are suddenly believable.

Sadly, this state of affairs is a general rule: we are much less critical about things that fit with our likes and dislikes than those that challenge them, no matter how questionable the claims or their sources. But certainly as scholars we should try to be more rigorous? We should weigh the reliability of sources in every case, not merely when it is convenient. Start with a set of principles, not teams that we root for and against. If provenance is important, then advocate for it everywhere, not just with the Greens. Based on this single online comment, scholars were worried that here we had a prominent scholar – Obbink – trying to illegally sell ancient texts. But we know for a fact that many scholars have been involved in the illegal antiquities trade, and they receive far less criticism. Let’s stop and reflect for a moment on why that might be, and whether we can do anything to change that.

UPDATE 7/1: Peter Gurry, a contributor to the Evangelical Textual Criticism blog, has informed me that Elijah Hixson did later contact Scott Carroll and confirm that he was the commenter on the post mentioned above (see here). It's worth noting, though, that the scholars who initially accepted the comment at face value would not have been aware of any confirmation.

[1] William F. Albright, On the Date of the Scrolls from ‘Ain Feshkha and the Nash Papyrus, Bulletin of the American Schools of Oriental Research115 (October 1949): 13.

[2] Oskar K. Rabinowicz, The Shapira Scroll: A Nineteenth-Century Forgery, Jewish Quarterly Review n.s. 56 no. 1 (July 1965): 1-21. See also Rabinowicz, Review of The Shapira Affairby John Marco Allegro, Jewish Social Studies27 no. 3 (July 1965): 196-197.

[3] A.S. Yahuda, The Story of a Forgery and the Mēša Inscription, Jewish Quarterly Review 35 no. 2 (October 1944): 139-164.

Thursday, January 25, 2018

Some Thoughts on Bible Nation

“Gutenberg Gates”: Entry to the Museum of the Bible with 40-foot bronze reproduction of the printing plates of Genesis 1 for the Gutenberg Bible
Photo taken Nov 4, 2017 by Fuzheado, via Wikimedia Commons

Shortly after the official opening of the Museum of the Bible in November, I published a piece at Hyperallergic on some of the museum’s problems, a set of things to keep in mind if you happen to visit. That piece referred repeatedly to the book Bible Nation (by New Testament scholar Candida Moss and Hebrew Bible scholar Joel Baden), which came out a month in advance of the museum’s opening. However, it was something short of a review of Bible Nation. Since I think that this book and the issues it treats deserve further discussion, I would like to present some thoughts on it here.

First, the book is very much worth reading for anyone planning to go to the Museum of the Bible, or for anyone considering the implications of such a museum. It is the single most important piece of writing to date on the museum, its collection, and all of the Bible-related activities of the Green family, the main backers of the museum. As Moss and Baden discuss, the Greens have not funded just the museum and scholarship on their collection, but also Bible curricula and an evangelical Christian travel program to Israel. On one level, Bible Nation is useful as a compilation of news stories in various places – some broken by Moss and Baden themselves – on these different activities over the last five years. But it is more than this: even as someone who has been following these issues with interest for some time, I learned a lot from the book.

How does the book treat the Greens’ artifact collection and the collection’s provenance specifically (Chapter 1, “The Collection”), the area I’m most familiar with? The discussion is generally good. I learned much less here than in other sections of the book, because I’ve followed the developments here more closely over the last few years. As elsewhere in the book, the primary (but not sole) value of the reporting is synthesis. There were a few details that were new to me (for example, the reporting of the Greens’ donation of artifacts and tax writeoffs in the context of their larger philanthropic activities). The coverage of provenance issues is not exhaustive: it leaves out examples such as the purported (and problematic) “oldest known siddur,” which was the subject of several news reports in 2014. Rather, as Moss and Baden suggest, the problems they report are merely the “tip of the iceberg”.

One of the threads running through the book is that the Greens are restricting access to knowledge and endangering academic freedom. Moss and Baden set the tone in the preface: “This book is about the Greens, but it is also about a set of American values, in which . . . individualism and property rights trump free access to and public ownership of knowledge and learning.” (p.viii) They argue that the Greens do this in particular through the use of non-disclosure agreements for scholars working on their collection (see esp. pp. 73-80). Moss and Baden strongly suggest that this is something unique, or almost so, in academia: it is “at odds with the most common standards and practices in humanities scholarship” (p. 73). Their only suggested comparison (pp. 81-82) is the infamous case of the Dead Sea Scrolls, in which a small, secretive group of scholars took more than 40 years to publish the material, all the while restricting access to anyone outside the group.

But this sort of restriction is far more common than suggested in Bible Nation. The case of the Dead Sea Scrolls stands out because it is so famous; because the material has been so important to the history of scholarship; because the case was well publicized; and because it took several prominent scholars to open access to the scrolls – not because it is unique. In fact, archaeologists are notorious for taking decades to publish the material they excavate, if they manage to publish it at all during their lifetimes; and in the meantime they routinely restrict access to their material. I spent years studying unpublished material from excavations, in particular Iron Age figurines from the southern Levant. There are cases where I was actively misled by an excavator about the material from his site, or where I was prevented from mentioning the existence of figurines after I had been allowed to study them. In one case a European museum refused my team permission to publish material it held from an old excavation in Israel, even though we had been authorized by the Israel Antiquities Authority to publish the results of the excavation; the museum refused even to tell us exactly what items they held from this excavation. I was regularly restricted in what I could write about the collections I’d seen, often in oral agreement but sometimes in writing.

Moss and Baden appear to be unaware that restrictions on unpublished collections are so common. This is not surprising: they themselves acknowledge, in a different context, that they do not work firsthand with this material. (p. x: “. . . we are not the kind of academics most directly affected by the Greens’ actions. We are neither specialists in ancient manuscripts nor especially concerned with the transmission of those texts.”) But this context is important, for it potentially changes how we analyze the Museum of the Bible’s actions. I have been worried – as I have written before – that the Greens will be targeted disproportionately (because they are politically conservative, because they are evangelical Christians, or specifically because of their Supreme Court case) while comparable issues at other museums and institutions will be ignored. We should be sure to focus our critiques on general principles, not on individual persons or institutions we happen to already dislike.

In fact, the entire framing of the non-disclosure issue as a conflict between “individualism and property rights” and “free access to and public ownership of knowledge and learning” is a striking one. For it is precisely this framing that is one of the main arguments of those trying to legitimize the use of unprovenanced artifacts – which are a major feature of the Green collection and which Moss and Baden sharply criticize. Archaeologists, Assyriologists, and others who champion the publication of such material have used almost these exact words. We commonly hear warnings about “censorship” (including “censoring knowledge”), concerns about “accessibility to scholarship” and  “freedom of scholarship.” (See for example the chapters by John Boardman and David I. Owen in Whose Culture? The Promise of Museums and the Debate over Antiquities, ed. James Cuno [Princeton and Oxford: Princeton University Press, 2009].)

On the surface at least, there is a certain tension between these two very different claims of censorship of knowledge. How are we to resolve it? Personally, I believe that the tension is more apparent than real, in particular because I find the claim that restricting the use of unprovenanced artifacts equals censorship to be overblown. After all, some archaeologists making these claims have taken decades to publish the finds from their own excavations – in the meantime restricting access to that material to varying degrees. I also find any concerns about censorship to be outweighed by the serious ethical, legal, and other professional problems presented by unprovenanced artifacts. Regardless, once Moss and Baden make this argument about access to knowledge, the tension needs to be discussed.

But where the Greens are most influential is certainly not in controlling scholarly access to their manuscripts, but in using their massive wealth to fund projects and causes with a massive public reach. Here Moss and Baden appear to be more perceptive than many other academic critics. They realize that the Greens’ funding of scholarship (and any possible distortion of scholarship that results) is less important than the legitimizing effect that that scholarship will have on the Museum of the Bible and the Greens’ other ventures. After all, the Museum of the Bible will reach more people, by orders of magnitude, than any single scholar can dream of doing. But Moss and Baden’s recognition of this influence is inconsistent. They conclude that

The Greens are free to use their considerable wealth to exert influence over politics and legislation; they are welcome to run their company according to their interpretation of biblical principles; and they are at liberty to try to evangelize. But when they, however unwittingly, disguise evangelization as education and fortify their beliefs as religio-academic consensus, they are doing more than merely misleading the public. When it comes to educating our children, informing our citizens, and serving as a resource to our politicians, accuracy and balance require more than notional guiding principles. (p. 194; my emphasis)

The Greens are legally free to do any and all of these things, and more (as long as they do not involve illicit activities like smuggling artifacts). Whether the Greens should do them, or should be allowed to do them, is another matter. Over the last few decades, one of the most consequential facts of political life in the U.S. and the world is the nearly inconceivable growth in inequality – a massive shift in wealth from the poor and middle classes to the wealthy. This shift has not happened by chance. It is the direct result of policy changes, policy changes motivated by the massive political spending of wealthy families and corporations. I must point out that Moss and Baden’s reference to exerting influence in politics is a brief one, and perhaps it is unfair to make too much of it. But especially in the context of Bible Nation, this shift should not be dismissed lightly but explored, even confronted head on. If we fail to understand this basic truth of contemporary life, how well can we really understand the massive political and cultural spending of families like the Greens (or the Waltons, or the Kochs) or companies like Hobby Lobby?

Thursday, October 12, 2017

What's in a (Place) Name?

Israel, Judea . . . and Palestine

Marcus Jastrow's Dictionary of the Talmud, part 13 (1900)

There appears to be a great deal of confusion about the name “Palestine.” Some believe it was invented by the Roman emperor Hadrian to replace the name “Judea.” Some believe it was imposed on the Arabs of Mandate Palestine by the British. Where did “Palestine” (and “Judea” and “Israel”) come from? What does it tell us about the people who use it? What, exactly, is in a name?

There is a famous verse in the book of Qohelet (Ecclesiastes) that runs, “One generation passes away, another generation comes, but the earth (ha’aretz) stands forever.” The medieval Jewish geographer Estori Haparchi added a twist: for him, “the land (ha’aretz) stands forever, with most of its names.” He was referring to how many ancient place names have been preserved in the Land of Israel. Place names are often very durable, but even so they can be hard to pin down. They may move around or change their meaning. Many names we use today for countries (England, Greece, Holland, Persia) originally referred to much smaller regions, and their ranges expanded only as groups of people and kingdoms spread. Given how we are usually taught to think of them, it might be surprising to realize – it was for me – that the same is true of the names Israel, Judea, and Palestine.

All three of these place names first appear in the historical record about the same time, around the ninth and eighth centuries BCE. (The names Israel and Philistines both appear earlier, c. 1200, as groups of people, Israel in the famous Merneptah Stele discovered in Egypt by British archaeologist Flinders Petrie in 1896.) And all three applied only to small regions. Israel was centered on the northern hill country in what is now the West Bank, Judea (Hebrew Yehudah, Judah) on the southern hill country, and Palestine (Hebrew Peleshet, Philistia) the southern coastal plain. Over the following several centuries, each name expanded in its scope until it encompassed the entire country: the Land of Israel as a central geographic term in Judaism, Judea as a political name for a small province of different empires and then an expanded Hasmonean kingdom. When the Romans incorporated the land into their empire, it was natural that they would adopt the term “Judea” (or Judaea) for its name.

And starting with Herodotus in the fifth century BCE, classical writers regularly used Palestine (Greek Palaistinē) to cover an area clearly greater than the southern coastal plain of the country. As with any name, there was some variation in its use, but overall that use was roughly consistent: Palestine covered much if not all of the land between Syria and Egypt. It was sometimes considered southern Syria, sometimes paired with Syria as a separate entity. Aristotle described tales he had heard of the Dead Sea (“they say . . . the lake is so bitter and salty that there are no fish in it”) and located it in Palestine. Jews used the name too. For Jewish writers like Josephus and Philo (first century CE), Palestine could be either the southern coastal plain or an alternate name to Judea for the entire region. So, when Hadrian substituted the name Palaestina for Judaea, he was in fact swapping one expanded regional name for another.

The name “Palestine” never went away, either. For hundreds of years it was the name of the Roman and Byzantine province. The rabbis, too, used Palestine (Hebrew-Aramaic Palastini) in Midrash as both the name of the province and a name for the southern coastal plain. The Umayyads (the seventh to eighth century rulers of the Middle East) inherited it, in the form of Arabic Filasṭīn, as a province from the Romans and Byzantines. Afterwards it no longer served as the name of an administrative unit, but as a geographic term in common use, again for a fairly well-defined area: most of area west of the Jordan and south of Galilee, plus a small part of what’s now Jordan. Important writers who lived in Jerusalem, from Muqaddasi in the 10th century to Mujir al-Din in the 15th and beyond, all knew the term and used it repeatedly in this way. They were often even aware that the land was named in some way after the Philistines. The use of “Palestine” by people in all different classes and parts of the country continued to the end of the Ottoman period. The influential Jaffa-based Arabic newspaper named Filastin was first published in 1911 – prior to the British Mandate, not imposed by it. Familiar with both this modern use and classical texts, it is no wonder that people around the world routinely used Palestine to describe the land in this period, including Jews (alongside their other names for it).

So why do we think of these three names in such different ways? For Jews, Israel and Judea are “our” names, the names we originated in some way and preserved over some 3000 years. For most of the last 1900 of these, this has happened largely – but certainly not exclusively – in the Diaspora. Palestine became the primary name used by its inhabitants after the Roman province was renamed, and it is the name Arabs living in and around the country have continually used for more than a millennium. It is “their” name. But the land doesn’t discriminate; it continues to stand, together with all these names.

Nameplate of Filastin, July 15, 1911

Friday, August 11, 2017

Joseph's Tomb and the Universal Value of Heritage

A group of ultra-Orthodox (Haredi) Jews and former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee 
pray at Joseph's Tomb, Nablus, May 22, 2017 (screenshot from YouTube)

In a recent blog post, Christopher Jones discussed the evolution of frameworks for dealing with cultural heritage over the last two centuries. The current framework is centered on national sovereignty, as Jones notes: national cultural heritage laws generally vest ownership of artifacts and monuments (unsurprisingly) in the nation-state, and international agreements center on national signatories and mechanisms to repatriate to source countries. But Jones notes increasing tensions with this framework – both international (the concept of global heritage) and local. When we say that something is global heritage, or shared heritage, that appears to be staking a claim to ownership of that heritage. It is no longer national.

Erich Hatala Matthes, a philosopher focusing on the ethics of heritage, has identified a similar tension between the value of cultural heritage for specific groups and the universal value of cultural heritage.[1] His work suggests, however, that it is possible to bridge the gap between these two views.[2] He points to alternative ethical accounts of recognition of value, or respect for heritage – that some things may be valued without ownership, or recognized to have value, or respected by everyone, regardless of whether everyone finds them actually valuable. Matthes is less concerned with arguing for the fact of universal value – his starting point is that at least some examples of cultural heritage have (or appear to have) universal value, and is merely trying to explain why that might be. (This marks a contrast with the concept of global heritage, which is often invoked with the assumption that all heritage should matter to everyone.) These models would relieve the tension between the universal and the national.

Or do they? With heritage – at least as heritage is understood under the current framework – I have become increasingly skeptical of our ability to escape ownership claims. For those who claim merely to value heritage, or that it is cultural or spiritual heritage (and not a literal claim to ownership), these concepts often bleed together – including insisting what other countries should do with their heritage. Consider the case of Palmyra, where, after three centuries of seeing the ancient ruins as part of their own past as opposed to that of the people living there, Europeans and Americans can still lecture Syrians on how to reconstruct (or not) the site after ISIS. Or the case of the Parthenon sculptures (aka the Elgin Marbles), where the British Museum uses “shared heritage” as justification for its continued ownership of the sculptures and refusal to repatriate them to Greece.

The Parthenon sculptures point toward the clearest problems: cases of contested heritage, where multiple groups (nations, ethnic groups, religious groups, etc.) directly vie for physical control of a monument or group of artifacts, even vying for control of the meaning – who gets to determine what it means. Having worked for many years in Israel, I have continually come across examples of contested heritage. Here I would like to highlight one specific example that may be illuminating: Joseph’s Tomb at Nablus.;r=9040

Joseph's Tomb in ruined state, late 19th century (Maison Bonfils)

Joseph’s Tomb (Arabic Qabr Yūsuf, Hebrew Qever Yosef) is located in Balata on the outskirts of Nablus.[3] The current structure largely dates to the late 19th century and later, but is ultimately a renovation of an earlier building. The site itself, or a site very close by, has been revered as the burial place of the biblical Joseph (Yusuf of the Qur’an) since at least the fourth century. It is mentioned by a long parade of travelers, pilgrims, and geographers, starting with Eusebius, in close connection with the traditional Well of Jacob; the current structures are only a few hundred meters apart.

Joseph's Tomb
Restored tomb, c. 1900 (via Wikimedia Commons)

The place was considered sacred by Jews, Christians, Muslims, and Samaritans alike. 18th-century itinerary books for Jewish pilgrims included Joseph’s Tomb at Nablus among their lists of sacred places and provided a prayer to be said. Explorers in the 19th century noted Hebrew inscriptions on the wall, one dating to 1749 (in the month of Sivan 5509 in the Hebrew calendar) describing a repair of the building at that time. They also noted that Jews and Samaritans burned incense in the hollowed tops of the two columns that flanked the cenotaph (the empty above-ground monument marking the place of burial) in the center of the tomb building. Travelers focused on the shrine’s importance to Jews and Samaritans, but they routinely observed that Christians and Muslims also considered it a holy place. The shrine itself looks like a typical Muslim sanctuary or maqām: a small room with a dome on top, and an adjacent partly-closed courtyard. Tawfiq Canaan, author of the definitive study of Muslim sanctuaries in Palestine (1927),[4] remarked that in his time Muslims understood the shrine to be the shrine of the son of Jacob. All religious communities, it seems, understood the site as dedicated to the same biblical/quranic figure.[5]

Stereograph of man in interior of Joseph's Tomb, c. 1900 
(J.F. Jarvis, via Library of Congress)

But in recent decades this situation has drastically changed. After 1948, many Muslim shrines lost importance among local communities; some of the festivals (such as the Nabi Musa festival for the Jerusalem region and the Nabi Rubin festival in the southern coastal plain) were suppressed by Jordan or Israel. With Israel’s takeover of the West Bank after 1967 came visits of religious Zionists to Joseph’s Tomb – while Palestinians were banned from the site in 1975. Even after Israel transferred jurisdiction of Nablus to the Palestinian Authority in 1995, it still maintained control of the tomb with an IDF outpost there. A yeshiva with extremist ties named Od Yosef Chai (“Joseph still lives”) had been founded at the site in the 1980s, but was relocated to the nearby settlement of Yitzhar in 2000.[6] At that time, with the beginning of the Second (Al-Aqsa) Intifada, residents of Nablus burned the tomb, destroyed the yeshiva, and killed a Druze border policeman; subsequently Israel completely withdrew from Joseph’s Tomb and Nablus. In the years since, visits to the tomb in the middle of the night by groups of religious Israeli Jews, escorted by the Israeli military, are regular occurrences. One such trip earlier this year included roughly 4000 Jewish worshipers plus former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee. Palestinians in Nablus now maintain – in contrast to widespread belief before 1948 – that the tomb is merely that of a local sheikh named Yusuf. Local residents have vandalized the tomb multiple times.

Group of religious Jews and soldiers at Joseph's Tomb, November 2009. 
Note the damaged dome.
(Photo by Shuki, via Wikimedia Commons)

What accounts for the massive shift in Palestinian attitudes toward the tomb, between the British Mandate and today? In Facts on the Ground (2001), Nadia Abu El-Haj suggested that the tomb – given its handling in the decades of Israeli control – had come to be seen as monument to Israeli colonialism.[7]

This conclusion parallels Morag Kersel’s work on looting in the West Bank.[8] While it is commonly believed that antiquities looting is caused primarily by economic factors, and it is true that collectors’ demand for artifacts is a central driver of the market, this is only one of four major motivations identified by Kersel based on interviews with Palestinians. One of the other three is resistance: “In repeated interviews I was told that one of the motivating factors for looting was a resistance to the Israeli occupation and subjugation of the Palestinian people.”
Even if the looted artifacts are (or could be understood) as part of the Palestinian past, looters see them only as belonging to the Israeli past: “Interviews with Palestinian archaeologists and government employees confirmed that the Palestinian looter, regardless of whether he digs in Israel or the PA, does not identify the material remains as his or her past but as an Israeli past, and it therefore should be eradicated.” For many (not all) Palestinians, Joseph’s Tomb has been transformed from a sacred place to a symbol of occupation – it is what Lynn Meskell has identified as “negative heritage.”[9] It conjures not positive but negative memories, in a way we normally ignore when we think about heritage.

However much we may deplore vandalism and destruction, can we expect or even demand that everyone respect or recognize the value of Joseph’s Tomb? We are in a situation where two groups attribute meanings to the structure – one positive, one negative – that directly conflict; and where a single group’s meaning underwent significant change within a few decades. Can we as scholars or outside observers insist on treating only one view – the Israeli one – as legitimate? This question is not just academic. Several scholarly reviews of Abu El-Haj’s Facts on the Ground harshly criticized her merely for trying to understand Palestinian motivation for vandalizing Joseph’s Tomb.[10] Especially in the context of occupation of the West Bank, it seems superficial to focus on condemning vandalism and damage to a building – though the loss of life in the 2000 attack is another matter.

Certainly not all forms of heritage are as contentious as Joseph’s Tomb, not all places filled with as much tension as Israel/Palestine. In places like the Haram al-Sharif/Temple Mount, Palestinians and Israeli Jews attribute different meanings even to metal detectors. But the same issues, in stark outline there, can be found all around us once we start looking for them – often just waiting for the time to erupt. In the U.S. they are the natural product of disturbing aspects of history like slavery, Jim Crow, and displacement of Native Americans. Recent examples include fights over Confederate monuments, Native American sacred sites and burial grounds, and so many more. I am still working my way through these issues; with all of their complexity, I imagine we all are. But I am increasingly uncertain of any universal model for respecting or recognizing the value of heritage.

[1] Matthes, “Saving Lives or Saving Stones?” The Ethics of Cultural Heritage Protection in War, in Public Affairs Quarterly. (I am grateful to Dr. Matthes for sharing a draft of this paper.)
[2] See also Matthes’s Impersonal Value, Universal Value, and the Scope of Cultural Heritage, Ethics 125 no. 4 (2015): 999-1027.
[3] I sincerely recommend the Wikipedia entry on Joseph’s Tomb (, which is detailed and well-presented. I found it helpful in providing references for some of the discussion that follows.
[4] Taufik Canaan, Mohammedan Saints and Sanctuaries in Palestine (London: Luzac & Co., 1927; reprinted from the Journal of Palestine Oriental Studies 4-7 [1924-1927]), pp. 294-295.
[5] Incorrect claims about the history of the building circulate widely. For instance, Sandra Scham, By the Rivers of Change: Strategists on the Heritage Front, in Controlling the Past, Owning the Future: The Political Uses of Archaeology in the Middle East (ed. Ran Boytner, Lynn Swartz Dodd, and Bradley J. Parker; Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 2010), p. 97: “Among these are Joseph’s Tomb in Nablus, which was sacred to Muslims and Samaritans but not traditionally identified by other Jews before 1967 as the tomb of the biblical Joseph.” Alex Shams, meanwhile, suggested that the identification of the tomb as the burial place of the biblical Joseph was invented by an Irish journalist, William Cooke Taylor, in the 1830s (Why Do Palestinians Burn Jewish Holy Sites?: The Fraught History of Joseph’s Tomb, Mondoweiss, November 12, 2015
[6] The yeshiva would be seized by the IDF in 2014, apparently the first time a yeshiva was closed by the Israeli government, for repeated violence against Palestinians as well as Israeli forces.
[7] This conclusion has been echoed by Palestinian archaeologist Adel H. Yahya: Heritage Appropriation in the Holy Land, in Controlling the Past, Owning the Future: The Political Uses of Archaeology in the Middle East (ed. Ran Boytner, Lynn Swartz Dodd, and Bradley J. Parker; Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 2010), p. 147; and Shams, Why Do Palestinians Burn Jewish Holy Sites?
[8] Morag M. Kersel, Transcending Borders: Objects on the Move, Archaeologies: Journal of the World Archaeological Congress 3 no. 2 (August 2007): 81-98.
[9] Lynn Meskell, Negative Heritage and Past Mastering in Archaeology, Anthropological Quarterly 75 no. 3 (Summer 2002): 557-574.
[10] Aren M. Maeir, Review of Facts on the Ground, Isis 95 no. 3 (September 2004), p. 524; Alexander H. Joffe, Review of Facts on the Ground, Journal of Near Eastern Studies 64 no. 4 (October 2005), p. 303; Jim Davila, Review of Facts on the Ground,, September 27, 2007 ( This passage has also seized on in popular accounts; e.g., Bari Weiss, Facts in the Air, Haaretz, November 29, 2007. Maeir claims further that the tone of her description of the vandalism is “gleeful” and that she “condones” the act. I find his claims puzzling, as I fail to see how anyone can read the relevant excerpt from Abu El-Haj’s book and come away with this impression. Unfortunately, until Abu El-Haj herself addressed such claims in print earlier this year (Academic Freedom at Risk: The Occasional Worldliness of Scholarly Texts, in If Truth Be Told: The Politics of Public Ethnography [ed. Didier Fassin; Durham: Duke University Press, 2017]), the only person of whom I’m aware to come publicly to her defense on this matter is James G. Crossley, Jesus the Jew since 1967, in Jesus beyond Nationalism: Constructing the Historical Jesus in a Period of Cultural Complexity (ed. Halvor Moxnes, Ward Blanton, and James G. Crossley; London and New York: Routledge, 2014 [Equinox, 2009]), p. 123; see also Jesus in an Age of Terror: Scholarly Projects for a New American Century (London and New York: Routledge, 2014 [Equinox, 2008]), p. 168.