Sunday, December 1, 2013

Heaven on Their Mind

My family's holiday religious discourse has correlated to my level of academic study.  Each year, the dinner table has witnessed increasingly interesting discussions.  Last night's discussion was primarily monopolized by the concept of heaven.  The question posed to me was, "Well, what do you have to do to get to heaven?"  My response, granted it was a little instigative, was, "Which heaven?"

The Hebrew and Christian Bibles, as they appear today, portray an astonishingly wide range of heavenly conceptions.  Over the next few days, I will write brief posts on different models of heaven found throughout Christianity's religious literature.

A rabbit's conception of heaven.
For today, what better place to begin than in the beginning?

Genesis 1:1 reads, "In the beginning, Elohim created the heavens and the earth."  The heavens, in their introduction, are immediately set in contrast to the earth. The earth is on the ground; the heavens are above.  The earth is a single entity; the heavens exist as a plurality.  In the Genesis paradigm, the heavens are a purely cosmological representation.  They represent an ordered layering of reality.  Throughout Genesis, we learn that such phenomena, such as rain, originates within the heavens (Gen 7:11).  Additionally, we read that the stars also call heaven their home (Gen 22:15-18).

Heaven, in the Hebrew Bible / Old Testament, is not a place to which souls journey after death.  This idea comes later, and we will talk about it in further detail tomorrow.  

The last idea that I would like to bring up today is the heavenly antithesis, which is often brought up in conversations about heaven:  Hell.

The topic of Hell warrants a more detailed post in the future, but suffice to say for now that the Old Testament presents a conception of Hell akin to other literary works of ancient Mediterranean provenance.  Sheol is the most frequent place mentioned in the Old Testament as the resting place for the dead. Sheol, in Hebrew, translates to pit, grace, place of darkness.  Interestingly, the Hebrew Bible describes sheol similar to the Greek underworld, which Aeneas’ visit in book six of The Aeneid.

Sheol as a place exists between the pillars upon which the earth rests.  First Samuel 2:8 reads,

"He raises up the poor from the dust;
   he lifts the needy from the ash heap,
to make them sit with princes
   and inherent a seat of honor.
For the pillars of the earth are the Lord's,
   and on them he has set the world."

As I mentioned earlier, we will explore the concept of Hell in more detail at a later date.  The purpose of this post was to begin elucidating the varied biblical concepts of heaven.  In sum, the Old Testament presents a strictly cosmological representation of the heavens.  It is the place where all stars, planets, and divine beings exist.  When God speaks to his heavenly court, the beings whom God addresses (including Satan in the book of Job) exist alongside God in the heavens.  The heavens are not a place for humans, at least in the Hebrew Bible.

Tomorrow, we will discuss how this view is altered in the New Testament.

The crucified Christ pulling Adam and Eve from
the underworld.

Saturday, November 30, 2013

Ancient Rome and Particle Physics

"Ancient Rome" and "Particle Physics" appear to be options in the game, "One of these is not like the other..."  Believe it or not, these two worlds have collided over the responsibility of each with regards to the use of material culture.

Yesterday, an article detailing the debate appeared in several online publications.  The debate concerns Ancient Roman shipwrecks that contain stores of iron ingots--a unitary means of transporting metals in the ancient world (think bar of gold).  The iron ingots of two shipwrecks in particular have been plundered by particle physicists for a unique reason.  Modern lead contains Pb-210, an isotope of Uranium.  The ancient lead, because of its submersion in water for nearly 2,000 years has largely escaped contamination.  This more heavily purified lead creates a more stable environment when it is used to detect the reaction of atoms when they are smashed together.  The article can be read in more detail here, but the contents it discusses raises an important archaeological question.  What is the archaeologists job in preserving material culture?

If the experiments being performed in the supercolliders of the United States and Italy have the potential to help people in the future, could the material culture warrant destruction?  The answer to this question is yes but also no.  Archaeology in itself is a destructive endeavor.  Once an artifact is removed from the ground its initial context has been ruined.  You can never dig the same dirt twice.

If what the scientists are discovering with their experiments in the particle accelerator could aid future benefit to humanity, then yes, I believe limited destruction is warranted.  Full-scale destruction, however, would rob future archaeologists of learning from these shipwrecks.  If these wrecks are tourist attractions, such wide-spread destruction could diminish an industry within the area, immediately affecting real people.

Hopefully an agreement can be reached in which important research can continue with limited impact on the material culture. 

Friday, November 29, 2013

ASOR 2013 in Baltimore and the Archaeologist's Responsbility

I am beginning to realize the importance of consistent, daily writing.  Instead of reserving my commitment of the written word to an electric screen when a paper is due, I am going to make a concerted effort write consistently on matters of interest related to archaeology and biblical study.

Last week, a group of friends / colleagues--luckily in our field, the distinction between the two easily blurs--journeyed to the annual meeting of the American Schools of Oriental Research.  In layman terms, it is one of the main archaeological scholarly meetings that takes place each year.  

When I have discussed this meeting with friends who are not in the field of archaeology, images of scholars akin to Indiana Jones pop in their mind.  What could be more interesting than hanging out with such a group?  While I agree with the sentiment of excitement, the reality is that it is merely another conference with good deals on books and fascinating papers to attend.

The plenary address for the conference took the cake for the most engaging discussion, at least in my book.  C. Brian Rose of U Penn challenged all Archaeologists with our role when the countries we study go to war.  What is the archaeologists job who digs in Syria, when the political climate renders travel to the country impossible?  Our job, Dr. Rose said, was not to take sides in any conflict.  Our job first and foremost is to ensure the protection of material culture.

He implemented a fascinating program where he and other archaeologists traveled to different military bases in the U.S. to provide servicemen and servicewomen with information regarding antiquities of the countries to which they would soon be deployed.

Another interesting item discussed was the purchase of looted antiquities in foreign countries.  Although it might be pretty cool to purchase an assortment of ancient coins or a Roman short-sword, the money exchanged for such items often goes directly into the hands of people that fund terrorism and violence.

The conference was a blast and included many opportunities to touch base with former professors and colleagues.  I was privileged to present a poster with a fellow student, and also I was able to spend a brief period of time with a former professor from Centre College who was seminal in my journey to where I am today.

All in all, it was great week with nothing but fantastic memories.

Jocelyn and I with our poster.

Thursday, June 20, 2013

Another Season in the Books

Yesterday morning, the volunteers and staff of the Huqoq Excavation Project headed our separate ways as our 2013 dig season officially ended.  Some flew back to where they called home, while others set out to travel.  A group of us headed for Jerusalem, where I am now staying until Monday. A drive for the extended stay was to see the Herod the Great exhibit in the Israel Museum. 

The closing of a dig can be a stressful endeavor. It involves a lot of dirt, a lot of packing heavy tools, and a lot of time in the sun. This year, however, the amount of stress was easily levied by the group of volunteers who pitched in to help. The two days of work were almost completed in one, which allowed time for a few antics and a bit more rest.

      Jocelyn moving dirt to help backfill our square. This is a measure taken to help preserve the site.

A kibbutz dog who followed us to the site had an affinity for tuna juice. Bryan was happy to share.

After arriving in Jerusalem yesterday morning, we settled at our hostel for a bit and then headed to the Israel Museum. No matter how many visits I will make to the museum, I am sure there will always be more to see. It is incredible standing before artifacts that, "changed the game" in the worlds of social sciences and archaeology. The feeling was no different this year.

The plans for today are to head to the market just down from our hostel with Shua and head to her family's house later tonight to again enjoy a generous invitation to a Shabbat meal 

Saturday, June 15, 2013

A Late Start

With my computer on the verge of no longer functioning, I have found it difficult to blog during my time in Israel so far. I have resorted to using my iPad, which renders typing a bit more of a tedious task. Instead of trying to write about all of our adventures thus far, I am going to begin with only recent trips and insights.  That being said, I wish that I would have been writing this entire time.

On Tuesday of this week, Dr. Michael Chazan, a lithics expert from the University of Toronto, took us a few miles up the road to visit Mugharet el-Zuttiyeh, which translates to, "Cave of Robbers" in English. A specimen named the "Galilee Man" serves as the earliest evidence of hominids in the Western Hemisphere (Homo hidelbergensis to be exact).

                                                      Walking up to the cave.

                                                    View from within the cave.

Following our trip to the cave, we journeyed to Tiberias where we were able to get some food and relax for a couple of house before returning to the kibbutz.

The actual digging has been wonderful, as it is every year.  I will write more about what we have done this year and why we have done it once I return to the states.

In addition to our final week of digging, one day stands out amongst the rest: today. This afternoon, following lunch, we are heading to the Mediteranean Sea for a swim. Following our Mediterranean respite, Jodi has purchased tickets for us to see Idan Reichel in the ancient theater of Caesarea Maritima--the theater built by Herod the Great in honor of Augustus. (By the way, the "Great" in Herod's name derives from his massive and successful building projects.) Jodi surprised us with our itinerary earlier in the week to much applause. Not only is the music sure to be amazing, but it is hard to contain excitement at the prospect of going to a show in the same place the Roman populace and dignitaries went to over 2000 years ago.

The excavation portion of this season ends later this week, but some friends and I will be spending a bit of time in Jerusalem before returning home.  On the list of activities to which we are looking forward is spending time with Shua and her family for Shabbat (they have graciously extended an offer to us again), visiting the Herod the Great exhibit at the Israel Museum, and possibly touring the West Bank via a group tour at our hostel. I will try to post a bit more in the upcoming days. 


Monday, January 7, 2013

Huqoq Mosaic Revealed and the Synagogue Typology Debate

Biblical Archaeology Review has featured our site, the Huqoq Excavation Project, in its December / January edition.  For the first time, the mosaic of Samson and the depiction of Judges 15 appear in print.  In the article, dig co-director Dr. Jodi Magness surveys the synagogue’s mosaic floor and gives it a historical and cultural context within the landscape of the ancient world.  This is undoubtedly the first of much ink to be spilled on the topic of the Huqoq synagogue, and it presents us with a great opportunity to delve into some current archaeological debates in which our synagogue will likely play a role.

Samson's lower half (right); two foxes tied to firebrand (left)

The first major debate is synagogue typology.  Without getting into too much detail, the debate focuses on whether or not certain types of synagogues were built during certain periods within antiquity.  Those who support a synagogue typology usually propose the following three “types” of synagogues:  Galilean built during 2-3 c. C.E., Transitional built during 4 c. C.E., and Byzantine built during 5-6 c. C.E.   These dates are largely derived from architectural and stylistic elements.  Those who oppose this typology point out that architecture and style vary regionally and were also in a constant state of flux.

It would seem to solve this debate we would merely have to turn to the ceramic and numismatic record.  Unfortunately, however, this only convolutes the debate.  Pottery and coins do appear in great quantity beneath synagogue floors, but there is no sure way to determine whether this material culture was placed there before synagogue construction or during a repair.  The most telling material culture comes from beneath foundational architecture, such as stylobates, for these would not have been removed after initial construction.  Coins especially help because they give us a concrete terminus post quem—“date after which” the synagogue must have been constructed.  Coins, however, could circulate for a hundred years of more before making their way below a synagogue, rendering even the most exact date on a coin contentious.

The traditional synagogue typology came into question in the early 1980’s with a re-examination of the synagogue at Capernaum, the hometown of the Christian apostle Peter.  Two Franciscan archaeologists (Loffreda and Corbo) argued that the 2-3 c. C.E. date of Capernaum’s synagogue was incorrect and should be pushed back to the 4-5 c. C.E.  Although the Franciscan argument for re-dating the Capernaum synagogue relied heavily on architecture, which is a methodology questioned by non-topologists, the ceramic and numismatic material corroborate this later dating (with the possibility of a even later date, as suggested by Dr. Magness).

Capernaum synagogue showing Corinthian capitals
Several archaeologists visited our synagogue at Huqoq during our excavation during the 2012 season.  Not surprisingly, each visiting archaeologist suggested a date that would further corroborate their own work and interpretation.  The dates included the second, third, fourth, and fifth centuries.  Dr. Magness, being the voice of reason, cautioned us about dating something before more information could be gathered.  In upcoming seasons, we will uncover more of the mosaic and eventually dig through portions of the floor (not covered by the mosaic) in order to gather ceramic and numismatic material for dating purposes. 

Our excavation the past two seasons has been meticulous almost to the point of frustration.  The co-directors and area supervisors insistence on slower progress, however, means that we are documenting absolutely everything.  Archaeology is a destructive science—once something is removed from the ground, it can never be examined in its original context again.  The better an excavations documentation, the better archaeologists not directly involved with the dig will independently be able to interpret the data. It is the hope of all involved on the Huqoq Excavation Project that our synagogue will aid in furthering the discussion on whether or not a synagogue typology exists.

Next week, I will introduce a lesser-known debate concerning ancient Judaism’s supposed ban on images appearing in synagogues.

Anyone seeking further information on the Huqoq Excavation Project or interested in donating to help fund the 2013 season, please visit Dr. Jodi Magness’s website or drop me an email / leave a comment below.

Friday, December 21, 2012

Apocalypse Now, Again

A year and a half ago, we somehow survived the appocalypse of May 20 as predicted by Herald Camping; and I believe we will also survive the Mayan apocalypse-that-never-was.  If t-shirts do not yet exist that say, "I survived the [insert apocalyptic date here] apocalypse," I would like to begin making them to cash in on this apparently annual tradition.  Since the world's eye remains transfixed on the end-of-the-world, I would like to take a moment to write a bit in general about ancient apocalyptic prophecy and the groups that produced them.

To begin, "apocalypse" is a cognate of the Greek verb apokalypto, meaning, "to reveal" and "to make known."  We may understand the phrase apocalyptic literature then as literature that makes known that which is unknown.  As a side note, because it has been in the media, the word "Armageddon" is a rendering of the Hebrew phrase har megiddo, meaning Mount Megiddo.  The author of Revelation names the valley below har megiddo as the location of the penultimate battle between the forces of good and the forces of evil.  The Book of Revelation, however, is not the only apocalyptic book in Jewish and Christian Scriptures.

A few examples of other texts with apocalyptic messages are Zechariah, Mark, and 2 Thessalonians.  Each text, though produced by different people in different times, shares a common origin:  production amidst a rapidly shifting cultural landscape.  Below we will examine each of these texts briefly to see the historical contexts out of which they arose.

The prophet Zechariah writes to a group of people who returned to Jerusalem following the Babylonian Exile.  The exiled people of Israel were able to return to their homeland through a bizarrely bloodless shift of power, wherein the Persian Empire told the empire of Babylonian that Persia now ruled.  Whereas Bablyon's policy was to move the aristocracy of conquered peoples to within the confines of the empire proper, Persia's policy was self-autonomy with regional Persian governors.  When Persia took control, many of those who had been in exile were given the option to return home.  Those who chose to return came back to a changed Israel.  Jerusalem's temple remained destroyed and those who had avoided exile had expanded their cultural influence.  Imagine going on an extended vacation (say...50 years)  and coming home to find others squatting in your house.  How would you respond?  Further, those raised in Bablyon were likely told stories of a future time in which Israel would return home, followed by the rest of the nations and peoples of the earth, to bow before their god.  How would this come to be if a foreign leader who served foreign gods ruled your land?  It is from this context in which Zechariah proclaims an age in which the davidic monarchy will be fully restored and all foreign nations and people will draw to Israel--either peacefully or through war.

In Mark, we read about Jesus of Nazareth teaching his followers about the imminent coming of the Kingdom of God.  This Greek word euthus, meaning "soon" or "imminent" occurs 41 times in the Gospel of Mark. (Compare that to the 14 times it appears throughout the other three canonical gospels!)  The reason for Mark's emphasis on the temporal reality of God's coming kingdom becomes clear when examined through a historical lens.  The Gospel of Mark exists as the earliest gospel, likely authored in or shortly after the year 70 CE--the same year Rome destroyed the Second Temple in Jerusalem.  Nearly 2,000 years later modern Judaism continues to mourn the loss of this temple on Yom Kippur.  There was no simple moving on after this calamitous event.  Judaism forever changed and every form of ancient Judaism responded slightly differently.  The Qumran community, who likely authored the Dead Sea Scrolls, responded by further separating themselves from the evil world and maintaining worship through reflecting in their community the manner of worship they believed to occur in the heavenly realm amongst the angelic hosts.  Rabbinic Judaism also began around this time in response to the cessation of worship at the Temple in Jerusalem.  The author of Mark followed a similar path as those at Qumran, believing that the present world was finished and God's kingdom would soon be ushered in through the return of their messiah.

Paul, in 2 Thessalonians, writes to a community in the Greek city of Thessaloniki, concerning the return of Jesus Christ.  According to Paul's letter, another person or group had visited the city telling Paul's audience that their messiah had returned but that they had missed out on the festivities.  Pauls tells his audience not be deceived and gives them an eschatological message similar to one we find in revelations:  
"Let no one deceive you in any way; for that day will not come, unless the rebellion comes first, and the man of lawlessness is revealed, the son of perdition, who opposes and exalts himself against every so-called god or object of worship, so that he takes his seat in the temple of God, proclaiming himself to be God." (2 Thes. 2:3-4)
That's a bit of weight off of the chest of Paul's audience, right?  Wrong. A few verses later, Paul tells his audience that this man of lawlessness is already at work:  "For the mystery of lawlessness is already at work; only he who now restrains it will do so until he is out of the way." (2 Thes. 2:7).  The end-of-times is not a future reality but a present one.

Who could be Paul's man of lawlessness?  This prestigious title goes to Emperor Caligula (r. 37-41) who ordered a statue of himself to be placed in Jerusalem's temple.  This single act would have brought the utmost offense to any Jew who fostered the slightest bit of anti-Roman sentiment (and likely engendered hate where it had not before existed).  In attempting to place this statue in the temple, Caligula was asserting Roman Imperial religion--in other words, the Jewish God was being exchanged for Roman emperor worship.

The purpose of these brief surveys is to show that apocalyptic literature originates from the context of a shifting cultural landscape.  In the case of Zechariah, it was not a violent shift but a societal one.  For the author of Mark and Paul, the cultural shift was one surrounded by violence.  Those who herald apocalyptic predictions today fail to grasp the historical and sociological context through which religious texts developed.  In the above discussed texts, the end of the world is not met in destruction--as often proclaimed--but in restitution.  The author of Revelation says that God "will wipe every tear from their eyes.  Death will be no more; mourning and crying and pain will be no more, for the firs things have passed away."  And the one who was seated on the throne said, "Behold, I am making all things new." (Rev. 21:4-5).  The end-of-times as expressed in biblical text then is not a calamitous end but a new beginning in which violence, pain, and suffering exist only in memory.

To wrap up this post, we must not use apocalyptic literature primarily to understand the past or to predict the future, but we must use apocalyptic literature to understand the present.  For the past is more an ingredient of apocalyptic literature than a foundation; and all future predictions made within such texts are the expectations of how God will draw history to its end.  The present is the only reality in which the authors of apocalyptic literature lived, and it is what drew these authors to reveal God's work in history and in their expectations for the-world-to-come.  If reading apocalyptic literature from the perspective of the authorial present is the hermeneutic key to understanding such texts, how might this lens of interpretation impact how we read apocalyptic literature today?