Saturday, December 26, 2009

Are Christmas Trees and Santas Originally Canaanite???

Over a decade ago, William H. C. Propp wrote a hilarious "article" in Bible Review (14:6 for December 1998), in which he "argued," incorporating real facts, for the ancient Near Eastern roots of several American Yuletide customs.

His tongue-in-cheek essay begins as follows: I will concentrate here on just two major points: that the Christmas tree was originally a symbol of the Canaanite goddess Asherah and that Santa Claus is an avatar of Asherah’s consort, the high god ‘El, who is equivalent to the Israelite Yahweh. I will conclude by showing that the customs of Christmas were brought to America by the Canaanites themselves.

Among the well-attested evidence: El is a white-bearded patriarch who lives in the far north with dwarf-craftsmen and who is strongly associated with a symbolic, sacred tree.

To read the entire piece, available on-line, click here.


Thursday, December 24, 2009

Christmas Eve 2009

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

The First Excavated Dwelling in Nazareth from Jesus' Time

Just in time for Christmas, the Israel Antiquities Authority is announcing the discovery of a residential building from the time of Jesus found in the heart of Nazareth, his ancient home town. The remains of the dwelling date to the early Roman era. The remains of a wall were found, as well as the dwelling's courtyard and the water system that appeared to collect water from the roof of the home and supply it to those dwelling inside. There was also a hideout found, probably used by Jews at the time to hide from Roman soldiers who are battling rebels in that era for control of the area. Until now in Nazareth only tombs from the time of Jesus have been discovered.

Monday, December 21, 2009

"Was Bringing the Woodpecker a Mistake?"

From one of my OT-1 students:


Sunday, December 20, 2009

"Levites and Priests in History and Tradition"

Dr. Jeremy Hutton of Princeton Theological Seminary sent along this photo of our panel at the session on "Levites and Priests in History and Tradition" at the New Orleans SBL a few weeks ago (click to enlarge). As Jeremy said in his email, the session was a great success with a nice attendance. Plans to build on this inaugural panel of the new Levites program unit are already well developed. Visible in the photo, from left to right, are: Diana Edelman, University of Sheffield (at the podium); Sarah Shectman, Binghamton University (barely visible, behind the podium); Jeremy Hutton, Princeton Theological Seminary; Mark A. Christian, Middle Tennessee State University; myself (looking pensive?); Joel S. Baden, Yale Divinity School; and, to the far right, Jeffrey Stackert, University of Chicago.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

VTS Faculty in the New Church Publishing Catalog

Our seminary dean's post today caught my eye. It is about a good number of our seminary faculty with books in the current Church Publishing catalog:

The arrival of the Church Publishing Incorporated book catalogue made interesting reading. It is a witness to the impact that Virginia Theological Seminary has had and is having on the Episcopal Church. As one turned the pages, it was amazing to see the number of books written by VTS faculty. So Barney Hawkins and I are two of the four editors of the 'Christ and Culture: Communion After Lambeth', the first in a new book series called the Canterbury Studies in Anglicanism. Then we have the volume edited by Richard J. Jones and Barney Hawkins called 'Staying One, Remaining Open' (you will hear more about this book in a later commentary). Nestled on the same page is Tim Sedgwick's delightful volume 'The Christian Moral Life: Practices of Piety'. Turning to pages 10 and 11, we find David Gortner's excellent book on 'Transforming Evangelism' and opposite the annoucement that in April of next year, Ruthanna Hooke's book called 'Transforming Preaching' will be out. On page 17, Stephen Cook's excellent book 'Conversations with Scripture: 2 Isaiah' is advertised. Finally on page 24, we find Bill Roberts' 'Music and Vital Congregations' and Tim Sedgwick's 'The Business of All Believers' advertised.This catalogue is an impressive testimony to our hardworking Faculty and the contribution that they are making to the academy and Church through writing. Now if we started to count books written by alums of the Seminary, the number grows (Sharon Pearson, Sam Portaro and C. K. Robertson have books advertised). So it is not simply the Faculty who are productive as writers, but also the Faculty, as teachers, who have made a difference on those alums who are now serving the Church through writing.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

The Africana Bible

My colleague here in Hebrew Bible/Old Testament, Dr. Judy Fentress-Williams, has contributed to the brand new Africana Bible. Congratulations, Judy, on its release!

Here are our dean's comments in his daily blog for today:

Tuesday, December 15, 2009
Sitting on my desk is The Africana Bible: Reading Israel's Scriptures from Africa and the African Diaspora. The General Editor is Hugh R. Page, Jr., and it is a beautiful publication. It is substantial, pioneering, and deeply fascinating. It is lovely to see that our own Dr. Judy Fentress-Williams is responsible for the section on the book of Exodus. She takes as her organizing motif the concept of a 'remix', which works perfectly. This book, Dr. Fentress-Williams explains, is in the business of retelling the story of Israel 'as a means of affirming, preserving, and, at times, redefining her identity.' (p.81) Reading this chapter by Dr. Fentress-Williams gave me an entirely new way of understanding the book of Exodus.

This is scholarship that serves both the academy and the Church. It takes considerable skill and learning to write in a way that is both academically innovative and yet accessible for the lay person in the Church. As a Seminary, we take appropriate pride in the achievements of our Faculty. Do please take a moment out of this day and congratulate Judy on this fabulous and important contribution to this book.

The Very Rev Ian Markham
Dean and President

Monday, December 14, 2009

2009 Photograph at the VTS Christmas Dance

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Akkadian Lexicon Companion for Biblical Hebrew

This new book looks really interesting! A lot of work has apparently gone into illuminating biblical Hebrew meaning through comparative lexical work with the cognate language of Akkadian.
Here's a sample page (click to enlarge):

click me!

Tuesday, December 08, 2009

In the News: The Robert Wilson Festschrift

The latest issue of Yale Divinity School's "Notes from the Quad" has a nice write-up of our presentation to Robert Wilson of his Festschrift, Thus Says the Lord: Essays on the Former and Latter Prophets in Honor of Robert R. Wilson (Library of Hebrew Bible/Old Testament Studies)

The write-up paints a very nice portrait of Bob and quotes some of his words at the event. To view/download the article as a PDF, click here.

To see my earlier post on the event, click here.

Monday, December 07, 2009


I met the esteemed biblical scholar and teacher, Yochanan Muffs, only a few times in the early 1990s when I was on the faculty across the street from the Jewish Theological Seminary. He was retired and somewhat frail, being assisted by student helpers, at that time. Nevertheless, I certainly noticed with what great respect and affection folks on academic acropolis spoke of him.

Word spread over the weekend that Dr. Muffs has died, and the following brief biography has circulated:


DR. YOCHANAN MUFFS, for more than four decades a beloved teacher at The Jewish Theological Seminary of America (JTS), held the distinguished Service Professorship in Bible and Religion and made major contributions in biblical studies, Semitic languages, the history of the ancient Near East and Jewish religion and thought in general. Dr. Muffs’ central work has been in the understanding of biblical text through comparative philological study. His most recent book was The Personhood of God: Biblical Theology, Human Faith and the Divine Image).

For an affectionate portrait of Muffs from his JANES Festschrift, click here (PDF download).

update: Prof. Ed Greenstein, who worked with Muffs for over 20 years has published this appreciation in the Jewish Daily, Forward:

Yochanan Muffs, a scholar of Bible, law and Semitic languages whose books illuminated the legal and social meaning of emotions such as love and joy in the lives of Jews in antiquity, succumbed to Parkinson’s disease on December 6.

Muffs, professor emeritus of Bible and Jewish thought at the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York, had been coping heroically with Parkinson’s for 40 years, with the help of his extraordinary wife,
Yocheved. Yet for about half a century, despite the slow, steady progress of the disease, Muffs inspired generations of students and colleagues through his brilliant scholarship and exciting teaching. Indeed, such overused descriptions hardly do justice to the creative intellectual magic he brought to the classroom and the page.

Muffs’s scholarly models were the great professors of Judaica teaching at JTS when he arrived there: Shalom Spiegel, Saul Lieberman, Abraham Joshua Heschel and H.L. Ginsberg, as well as the broadly humanistic Assyriologists E.A. Speiser and Thorkild Jacobsen. Through the fire of his own imaginative genius, Muffs synthesized the methods and outlooks of these academic giants in a new and unique way. Ultimately, he joined this legendary cohort and became a star of the younger cadre of superb scholars that emerged in the early 1960s — a bridge to the older generation of pioneers in Semitics that re-contoured the field.

Raised in Queens, Muffs received his training in advanced Judaica at JTS, where he was ordained, excelling in Bible, in Talmud — indeed, in everything. He went on to earn his doctorate in Semitic philology and in the ancient Near East at the University of Pennsylvania.

Muffs saw himself as an anthropologist of his ancient forebears and a psychologist of the Divine. Several items of his published research became academic landmarks, beginning with his very first book, “Studies in the Aramaic Legal Papyri From Elephantine.” In this 1969 watershed work, Muffs analyzed all manner of legal documents from a colony of Jewish families literally holding the fort for the Persian governor of Egypt in the fifth century BCE. Gleaning comparative evidence from Mesopotamian, Egyptian, Jewish and other legal sources, Muffs was able to extract insights on innumerable aspects of these
documents and, through them, the everyday life and thought of the people for whom they provided some order. A rich vein of information and commentary emerged, extending well beyond the documents themsleves. The book remains in print, an invaluable resource.

Throughout his writings, Muffs set an example of how the analysis of seemingly banal expressions could open windows into the minds of people. Central to his first book, for example, is a cross-cultural, multilingual analysis of the phrase “His heart is pleased” (literally, good). Muffs demonstrated that the Aramaic contracts placed a premium on the satisfaction of the parties, using everyday language to convey that idea.

Muffs followed this up with an exhilarating analysis of the ways that terms for alacrity and delight are used to convey spiritual enthusiasm in his 1992 book “Love and Joy.” In the highly influential essay “Who Will Stand in the Breach?” Muffs reshapes our image of the biblical prophet as a perennial scolder and an occasional comforter, identifying a key role of the prophet as defender of the people—in effect, His Majesty’s loyal opposition. Thus, when God wants to destroy Israel for making the golden calf, Moses, in effect, steps up and asserts, “You’ll have to take me down too!” And when Samuel is
ordered by God to divest Saul of his kingship, he appeals to God all night, despite his own disdain for the king. Intimacy with God, Muffs avowed, means standing up to God. And God relies on this human function.

In his latest book, 2005’s “The Personhood of God,” Muffs upheld the anthropomorphic conceptualization of God—His moods swings and passions—as depicted in the Bible and in midrash. This was not, he argued, a primitive deficiency but a theological ideal. “A model of divinity that does not partake of personhood can hardly be expected to cultivate personhood in man,” he wrote. “A psychologically oriented, mythically formulated phenomenology of the world-affirming God as He
appears in the Bible and in later rabbinic tradition [can]… serve as the basis of a faith which humanists of all kinds can hold in common.”

Generations of scholars, whether or not they have sat in his classes, rightly regard Yochanan Muffs as their teacher. A casual conversation with him, in New York or in his second home in Jerusalem, could inspire an entire research project. This remarkable scholar, teacher, colleague, mentor and friend, with his sparkling boyish face and his
ever-fertile mind, will be sorely missed but always remembered.

Friday, December 04, 2009

VTS Lights Up for Advent

Gone are the days of a solemn, suppressed Advent at the Seminary. Most people seem to love the brighter new atmosphere.

- Posted using BlogPress from my iPhone

Location:Virginia Theological Seminary, Alexandria,VA, United States

Thursday, December 03, 2009

A Peek at the NOAB Fourth Edition

At the SBL in New Orleans, I stopped by the Oxford University Press booth in the book display to hear how the NOAB-4 is coming along, the latest version of the New Oxford Annotated Bible, to which I am one of several contributors. It is a major revision, with 50% brand new material, a 36-page section of full color New Oxford Bible Maps, etc. They say it will be in print by summer time, ready for the Fall 2010 semester.

I saw some page-proofs from the section on Matthew, and they look very good. Although each page is packed with information, the text is quite readable---even to my 47-year-old eyes!

Wednesday, December 02, 2009

"The Story of My Life"

Stephen, a student in OT-1, sent this cartoon in today: