Wednesday, July 15, 2020

The Other Yavne

The houses of Yibna surrounding the village mosque during the British Mandate (left); what's left in 2012 (right)

Can Yavne help the cause of justice in Israel-Palestine? For his vision of a single state with equality for Jews and Palestinians, Peter Beinart invokes it and its pivotal place in Jewish history. Yavne, where Yochanan ben Zakkai asked the Roman general Vespasian to let him establish a school when the destruction of the Temple was imminent. Yavne, where the foundations of rabbinic Judaism were set. It can be hard to grasp that importance on the spot today. Modern Yavne is a small city of some 50,000 people between Tel Aviv and Gaza. When my wife and I lived in Israel, our main impression was the smell of trash as you passed the city on Highway 4, leading us to dub it the New Jersey of Israel. On the other side of the city from the landfill, alongside the railway line, is a tell, a mound that marks the spot of the ancient town. Visit it today and there’s not much to see from its ancient past. (There have been archaeological excavations here but nothing impressive in the way of ancient architectural finds on the ground.) Amid the overgrown weeds and dirt, it’s hard to see more than a “dusty coastal village” of the first century here.

This isn’t the only reason Yavne’s importance is hard to imagine. When I visited the tell with a couple of friends several years ago, one of them, a scholar of early Judaism, announced something to the effect of “This is the place where the rabbis didn’t canonize the Bible.” I was surprised. I’d never heard the reality behind this story questioned before. But such questioning really has become routine in Jewish Studies over the last few decades. Then there’s the Talmud’s mythical tale of how Yochanan ben Zakkai won Yavne for the rabbis, by predicting that the Roman general Vespasian would become emperor. It’s too convenient, and it’s remarkably similar to the Jewish historian Josephus’s claim (written much earlier) that he was granted favor by Vespasian after predicting his rise to emperor. So much about Yavne’s place in Jewish history probably never happened.

Ancient Yavne itself was very much a real place, though, and for long after the first century. At the mound today, besides the weeds and the occasional excavation trench, you’ll see cactus hedges running along it, the telltale sign that there were once Arab fields here. People continued to live in the village long after the Sanhedrin, and Hebrew Yavne became Arabic Yibna. It was a district center under the early Muslim caliphates, minting its own coins; famous for its figs, according to the tenth-century resident of Jerusalem al-Muqaddasi; the site of the Crusader castle of Ibelin; and later reduced in size to a village, though a large and important one along the main north-south road. The residents were there throughout, for some 1850 years after Yohanan ben Zakkai, until 1948, when they either fled or were forced out by the armed forces of the new state of Israel, never allowed to return. The village was then demolished. About the only structure left on the mound that was the village of Yibna is the minaret of a mosque, built in the 1300s. The minaret stands there alone – the rest of the mosque was destroyed by Moshe Dayan in 1950, as part of his campaign to demolish Islamic holy sites in the region. The modern Israeli city of Yavne was not a continuation but a replacement: it grew up alongside the mound, but the mound itself was left empty. 

Yibna by itself was not a place of great importance. But it surely mattered to the Palestinians who lived there, like the hundreds of other villages that met a similar fate in 1948. Its absence from recent invocations of Yavne is a fitting symbol, showing how easily even well-meaning plans leave Palestinians out of their own history – and their own future. How can Yavne serve as a model for a shared Jewish/Palestinian state if we mention only the brief (semi-legendary) moment of its importance to Jewish history, and aren’t even aware of its much longer existence as an Arab village? The “dusty old village” of the first century, after all, was the same place as the “dusty old village” from which Palestinians were evicted in 1948. Is there a way we can refocus on a more complete history of Yavne? 

Just off of the mound of Yibna is an old shrine. For at least 800 years this was the tomb of Abu Hurayra, one of the companions of Muhammad. It was an important shrine, renovated and expanded under the auspices of the Mamluk sultans of Egypt themselves in the late 13th century. Today, with the Arab residents gone, it now serves for Orthodox Jews as the tomb of Rabban Gamaliel of the Sanhedrin. The Arabic inscriptions left on the cenotaph – the sarcophagus in the center of the shrine – by worshiping Muslims is now covered over or cleaned off, the Muslim graves outside the shrine removed. Like Yavne’s place in Jewish history, this shrine’s origins are mixed with legend: Abu Hurayra was widely believed to have died and been buried in Medina, and he had at least two other tombs in what is now Israel. There isn’t any evidence that this building was originally connected with Gamaliel, either – though medieval Jewish travelers in the 13th and 14th centuries already identified it as his tomb. But what this does mean is that, centuries ago at least, the shrine was a shared holy place. Maybe this is the Yavne we should use as a model, a starting point to reconcile past and present, Jew and Arab.


The tomb of Abu Hurayra/Rabban Gamliel during the British Mandate (left) and 2012 (right)

Friday, May 15, 2020

Little Richard, Two Days in the Life

Little Richard and his band in Mister Rock 'n' Roll (1957)

Scene One. September 13, 1955. J&M Music Shop, 838-840 North Rampart Street, New Orleans. A warm, rainy day. Richard Penniman arrives early in the morning with three of his bandmates at the music shop, on the corner of Rampart and Dumaine at the edge of the French Quarter. They meet one of the owners, Cosimo Matassa, who operates a small recording studio at the back of the store. (I make the journey to the same spot 54 years later, only now the building is a laundromat named – with a double pun – “The Clothes Spin”, a picture of a vinyl record behind the name on the sign. Now it’s apparently a different laundromat.)

Fats Domino had already made the studio famous. Now Specialty Records decided to try some recordings with Penniman here. Penniman had been making rhythm and blues records as Little Richard for a few years without success. The session in New Orleans was little different. On the first day and into the second, Richard recorded standard early 1950s blues fare, a lot like Billy Wright, Richard’s early idol – competent but not very memorable.

As the story goes, Richard takes a lunch break with the band and the producer at a local restaurant, where he begins fooling around on the piano with a joke song from his club routine, and lightning strikes. Richard trades that restrained blues crooning for something much wilder and shows off tricks he learned from an obscure piano player named Esquerita, pounding the piano high on the treble. Did it really happen this way? It’s a common tale – take Elvis, Scotty Moore, and Bill Black fooling around during a break in a lackluster session to create “That’s All Right Mama”. Whatever the truth, the story continues that Richard returned to the studio and sang the same song to songwriter Dorothy LaBostrie so she can clean it up – facing the wall instead of her because he was so embarrassed by the lyrics: “Tutti Frutti, good booty, if it don’t fit, don’t force it, you can grease it, make it easy . . .”

In typical fairytale fashion, La Bostrie finishes the revised lyric with 15 minutes to spare before the session ends, the band cuts three takes, and Richard’s first hit single is in the can.

Scene Two. 1710 Virginia Road, Los Angeles, a year and a half later. A luxurious home in the Sugar Hill neighborhood. A gold Cadillac in the drive.

A knock on the door.

Richard’s mother and brothers and sisters, all of whom he had packed up and moved from Georgia into his new house in Los Angeles, were used to famous guests and hangers-on coming by constantly. But this knock wasn’t from Chuck Berry or James Brown or someone just looking for money. It was a missionary from a local church named Wilbur Gulley. Richard had grown up in Baptist and Methodist and Pentecostal churches, listening to the music and singing gospel with his family. Now he was born again.

Brother Wilbur put Richard in touch with Joe Lutcher, who had briefly been an R&B star eight or nine years earlier and was now a born-again Seventh-Day Adventist. Lutcher could relate to Richard, the pressures and conflicts he was feeling. A few months later, Richard announced he was leaving show business, and the rock ‘n’ roll lifestyle that came with it, in the middle of a tour of Australia. He cut the tour short to head home, making plans to study theology and evangelize.

Little Richard’s career and his whole life were split between the sacred and the profane. And for Richard it really was “profane”. Over the decades he would pinball between rock ‘n’ roll and gospel, a wild life on the road and devoting his life to god, the proverbial angel and devil on opposite shoulders.

As a rocker, Richard’s performances were wild, his hair was wild, and the words to his songs suggestive. In the 1956 film Don’t Knock the Rock Richard plays “Long Tall Sally” with his leg raised, stretched out straight onto the piano, as a sax player solos on top of the piano. Was the pose phallic? The song, after all, is about Sally “built for speed” with “everything that Uncle John needs” (as he is apparently cheating on Aunt Mary).

Little Richard in Don't Knock the Rock (1956)

But Richard was also one of the few stars of 50s rock ‘n’ roll with a deep gospel background; besides him there were only a few R&B voices like Sam Cooke and Clyde McPhatter and the music of Ray Charles. A decade later and Richard could’ve been a great soul singer. Listen to “I Don’t Know What You’ve Got But It’s Got Me”, a soul ballad he released as a single in the fall of 1965. Today the song is best known for featuring an unknown 22-year-old guitarist who called himself Maurice James, before he reverted to his birth name of Jimi Hendrix. But on the recording Richard is the star – he preaches, he pleads, he bares his soul.

After returning to secular music in the early 1960s, Richard had only the occasional minor hit – “I Don’t Know What You’ve Got”, 1970’s “Freedom Blues”. He would instead be largely remembered for his past, for being “The Originator”, “The Architect of Rock ‘n’ Roll”. Now his music was overshadowed by his influence. James Brown and Otis Redding started out idolizing Richard and copying his moves. The Beatles covered several of his songs live and on record.

Whatever Little Richard owed to someone like Esquerita, he really was an originator. Esquerita eventually recorded for Capitol, but his playing there is erratic, his singing hoarse, and the overall effect chaotic. By contrast, Richard’s performances are controlled and powerful. Somehow he had managed to harness all of that energy and gospel fervor on two-minute recordings. 

Listening to Little Richard’s records now, we hear more than 50s rock ‘n’ roll nostalgia. His best songs are joyous, exhilarating, moving even today. And that’s what really matters.

Monday, November 4, 2019

Mark Twain, Not-So-Innocent Abroad

It was about the first of September, 1867, in Constantinople. A group of eight Americans walked into the studios of Abdullah Frères, three Armenian brothers who were renowned photographers — “photographers to the Sultan”, as they promoted themselves. Abdullah Frères were famous for their views of Constantinople and their portraits of prominent figures in the Ottoman empire. But the photographs they took of the Americans that day might be the most historic images they would make. For the American tourists were passengers on the Quaker City, the first American cruise ship to tour the Mediterranean. And among their number, not yet 32, was a young man named Sam Clemens, just beginning to make a name for himself as Mark Twain.

In his photograph from Abdullah Frères, Twain is a youngish man with dark, scraggly hair — how different from the gray-headed elder statesman we usually imagine! — but his face is still distinctly Twain’s. The same narrow eyes, the same mustache, the same look of vague disapproval all stare back from the studio portrait. “They take the finest photographs in the world here,” he wrote back to his mother.

At the time, Twain was a journalist who had managed to finagle his way onto the Quaker City cruise. He had convinced his employer, the Daily Alta California of San Francisco, to pay for his fare, in return for covering the journey in a series of letters to be published in the paper. The letters proved popular. That led to a book, The Innocents Abroad, or the New Pilgrims’ Progress (dedicated by Twain to “my aged mother”), published 150 years ago this year.

Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn may rule children’s literature lists and school curricula today, but in Twain’s lifetime it was his autobiographical works that sold the best — Roughing It, Life on the Mississippi, and, above all, The Innocents Abroad. That judgment wasn’t restricted to 19th-century buyers, either; George Orwell, for one, considered them “his best and most characteristic books.”

What made The Innocents Abroad such a success? For one thing, travel literature was popular with audiences, and Twain’s book fit in the genre, if somewhat uncomfortably. Twain keeps writing of his disappointment with the people and places he meets, especially in Palestine. This was nothing new in travel writing. What was new was Twain expressing that disappointment by mocking and insulting travelers and travel writers for paying lip service to the pieties of travel, with their expressions of awe and sentimentality. And he pioneered the image of the boorish American traveling overseas, even titling his lecture tour promoting the book “The American Vandal Abroad.”

But it was all an act. From his first national success, “The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County,” and even before, Twain was honing his brand of sleight of hand and misdirection in print. Part wisecracking comedian, part con-man, Twain was something new — and distinctly American — on the literary scene. With The Innocents Abroad, we are lucky that we have so many steps of the con in evidence. Between his travel notebooks, his letters, and the final product, we can see Twain constantly reworking his humor. Sometimes this is to smooth off the rough edges to make it appeal to an Eastern audience, and not just the readers of the Daily Alta California. Other times, it is apparently just to make it funnier.

At the time, The Innocents Abroad was widely hailed as a masterpiece of humor. Critics and other writers hailed the funniest scenes. A favorite was Twain at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, weeping over the grave of his ancestor Adam — as in Adam and Eve — because they never had the chance to meet. If the absurdity weren’t clear enough, Twain often marked such jokes by footnotes: “Stated to me for a fact. I only tell it as I got it. I am willing to believe it. I can believe any thing.”

Reading through the book today, though, we become less sure what to make of Twain’s humor. Some of it is deeply disturbing, as Twain describes meeting “the wildest horde of half-naked savages” and pictures himself daydreaming about exterminating tribes. This has to be black humor, we tell ourselves, but when we read other writing of the time we begin to wonder. “I believe in the existence of inferior races, and would like to see them exterminated,” Arthur Evans (not yet the famed discoverer of Minoan culture on Crete) could casually write about the Bosniaks of the Balkans, just a few years later.

So perhaps it is not surprising that, even though it seems unlikely that anyone would take The Innocents Abroad as a serious representation of the people and places it describes, this is precisely what has ended up happening. Twain’s morbid joke that train engines in Egypt used mummies for fuel (“sometimes one hears the profane engineer call out pettishly, “D—n these plebeians, they don’t burn worth a scent — pass out a King!”) has led to claims up to the present that this was once a common practice in the country. There is a famous quote at the end of the book about the positive effects of travel — “fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness, and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts” — coming after Twain has spent some 600 pages viciously mocking the lands he has visited, the people who live in them, his fellow travelers, and anyone else in sight. Yet the quote is famous because it is often taken as a serious argument by advocates for travel, with Twain hailed for his progressive views.

Above all, it is Twain’s description of 1860s Palestine that has come to be treated humorlessly as documentary evidence. Everyone from Benjamin Netanyahu to Alan Dershowitz, and many in between, have taken The Innocents Abroad at face value here. At least, they have taken parts of it at face value — the parts where he describes Ottoman Palestine as desolate and empty (and not the parts where he doesn’t). They use the same few quotes, with the same ellipses, and in one case give the same wrong location for the scene Twain was describing.

All of this was far in the future when Twain was first approached by a publisher in November of 1867, days after his return, about turning his letters into a book. He clearly had his records of the trip on his mind when he wrote to Emma Beach, one of his fellow travelers on the Quaker City, a month and a half later. Looking for his photographs from Abdullah Frères — the ones he had praised so highly to his mother — Twain found he had misplaced them. “I have searched everywhere for my photographs, but I cannot find a single one,” he informed her. “Those Constantinople pictures were very bad, though. I might almost as well send you a photograph of the Sphynx — it would look as much like me.”

If there’s a lesson to be learned here, in other words, it’s how dangerous it is to take anything Mark Twain says at face value.

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