Did the Ancient Jews Practice Crucifixion?

Last night during one of our class discussions on the historical Jesus, the question came up over crucifixion; someone had made the claim that only the Romans had practiced it.  But is that really the case?  Were the Romans really the only people in antiquity to use crucifixion as a form of punishment?  Well, actually, no.

First, crucifixion was not necessarily standardized.  The Greek word used in the New Testament, for example, to explain Jesus’ death is σταυρός (and cognates, e.g., Mark 16.6; ἐσταυρωμένον) which literally meant a ‘stake’, with which to impale someone.  This process could be done in a variety of ways and according to written tradition, some Roman rulers did experiment with all sorts of manners of crucifying their enemies.  It is important though that the two basic elements generally remain the same: the plank(s) or beam(s) of wood and something with which to impale the flesh (nails, hooks, etc…).  It was certainly a gruesome event.

Yet despite the overwhelmingly negative attitude that the Jewish people had towards crucifixion, it seems to have been something that was practiced by Jews at various times in the history of Judea.  Most notably were the crucifixions under the King of Judea, Alexander Jannaeus, in the1st Century BCE.  Following his victories against opponents (specifically Demetrius) to his rule, he crucified 800 of his enemies.  This practice is memorialized in Josephus and also in the Dead Sea Scrolls (it has also been argued that the crucifixion under Jannaeus of his enemies was looked at favorably by those who wrote the Pesher Nahum–Specifically Y. Yadin, ‘Pesher Nahum (4Q pNahum) Reconsidered’, Israel Exploration Journal , Vol. 21, No. 1 [1971], pp. 1-12).

There was also a Rabbinic punishment of crucifying bodies of those stoned to death for committing blasphemy (i.e., Sanhedrin 6.4n-q); the law specifies that planks of wood be used to hang up the bodies, apparently like slabs of meat–so presumably the body would be impaled to the plank.

Of course, hanging for punishment was not new.  In the Hebrew Bible, those guilty of a crime could be hung from a ‘tree’ (In the LXX, ‘tree’ is from ξύλον; specifically, ‘plank/beam of wood’–also found in Acts 5.30) and was considered acceptable to god, so long as the body was taken down that same day (this is the basis of the law found in the Talmud).  Normally, though, the process would not involve a living person (until Alexander Jannaeus), but in the Hebrew Bible (cf. 2 Sam 18), Absalom is found hanging by a tree alive, and is then pierced to death by three spears through the heart (which would quite literally be considered a crucifixion–fastened to a tree by his hair and he was impaled by spears) before he is beset upon by soldiers who further inflict more damage.

So it seems clear to me that the Jews of the period were not only familiar with the process of crucifixion before the Romans (the Persians also practiced crucifixion long before the Romans), but even practiced it as a form of punishment from time to time.  See further D.J Halperin, ‘Crucifixion, the Nahum Pesher and the Rabbinic Penalty of Crucifixion,’ The Journal of Jewish Studies 32 (1981), 32-46, esp. 44; and J.A. Fitzmyer, ‘Crucifixion in Ancient Palestine, Qumran Literature, and the New Testament’, Catholic Bible Quarterly 40 (1978), 493-513

Hector Avalos: ‘The New Holocaust Denialists: The Need for a Metacriticism of Biblical Scholarship’

How did I miss this?  Hector Avalos’ recent publication over at Bible and Interpretation:

There is a new movement of holocaust denialists, and the prime architects of this movement are biblical scholars. I am speaking not of the Jewish Holocaust under the Nazi regime, but of the Canaanite holocaust reported in biblical texts.

These Canaanite holocaust denialists argue that the Canaanite holocaust did not really happen. And if it did happen, then it was justified and not analogous to the Nazi holocaust.

via The Bible and Interpretation – The New Holocaust Denialists: The Need for a Metacriticism of Biblical Scholarship.

Go give it a read and check the comments (particularly Thomas L. Thompson’s comment).

Review of the Dead Sea Scrolls Exhibit at the Discovery Center

 Where: Discovery Center – New York

 When: January 8, 2012

 Overall Impression of the Exhibit:

Brief Introduction to the Exhibit:

Today I traveled to New York to see the much-acclaimed Dead Sea Scrolls exhibit at the Discovery Center (just off Times Square).  This is one of those exhibits I’ve been looking forward to seeing since I first found out about it when I went to the Discovery Center months ago to see the Pompeii exhibit.  Since they do not allow pictures to be taken of the exhibit, I brought along my Moleskine notepad and jotted down interesting or curious thoughts as I went along.

I arrived in NYC around 10:30 AM and had some time to kill, so I spent a good portion of it just walking around Times Square and taking in the city.  I was pleased to see that the exhibit was well-advertised; one would be blind or oblivious to walk around the area and not see signs for it.  Also, if you get to NYC often (or even if you go once in a while) be sure to stop in and eat at Carmines.  Superb food and service all around.

Banner leading into the exhibit.

Anyway, at around 12:50 PM I made my way to 44th St. and with some luck I managed to get into the exhibit without any problems, which was nice.  Earlier reviewers have complained about the long lines to get into the exhibit, the wait times between showings, and the speed at which one is rushed through the exhibit.  My experience, however, was anything but this; I was able to enter the exhibit quickly and with a small group and, while they did push us through the beginning of the exhibit so the group behind us could have room, I never felt as though I was being shoved along quickly.  In fact I went at my own pace.  One might chalk this up to the day and time I was there; most of the negative reviews seem to be around the holiday season when Times Square is no-doubt packed.

The group of us were corralled into a spacious room with huge projector screens.  The opening of the exhibit is a short burst of fun that plays with your senses.  You’re bombarded (in a good way) by both visual and audio experiences which filled me with excitement.  But even as I was anticipating an excellent exhibit, the hostess who spoke through this opening introduction made some curious, if not questionable, statements about the ancient past.

The First Part of the Exhibit and the Claims of a ‘Biblical Israel':

When it comes to ancient history, ‘fact’ is a term used fast and loose.  Scholars tend to be very cautious when making claims or asserting anything.  There are reasons for this.  Ever make an absolute claim to someone (e.g., ‘The world is only 6,000 years old!’) only to find out later you were wrong?   Well in order to avoid icky embarrassment (among other more important reasons, like remaining open to the possibility of being wrong when all the facts aren’t in yet), scholars will try to avoid making absolute claims about things, whether it be about the interpretation of a particular passage or verse or a translation, etc….  Thus if the scholar is shown to be wrong (usually through the process of peer review or through further research), the scholar maintains credibility and their hypotheses can be easily changed or adjusted to fit the new data (‘beliefs’ are much harder to change; despite all the evidence people still believe the world is 6,000 years old).

First part of the exhibit. Photo from: http://www.discoverytsx.com/exhibitions/dead-sea-scrolls

Unfortunately, this exhibit does not do a very good job at playing the ‘cautious’ game.  Right away the hostess made the claim that the Bible was written 3,000 years ago (c. 1000 BCE).  But while some scholars do in fact believe this to be the case, the question of when certain texts of the Hebrew Bible were written is still hotly debated.  Those who often argue for a 1000 BCE composition of the Pentateuch (the first five books of the Hebrew Bible), for example, are often arguing from a very conservative (if not politically- and/or a religiously-charged) position.  This isn’t always the case, but often it is.  The issues are not as black and white as ‘the Hebrew Bible was composed around 1000 BCE'; there are matters of nuance that cannot simply be pushed aside to favor a conservative dating.

Initially I just assumed that the hostess was generalizing for the lay audience (and it was likely she was a layperson herself) and I wasn’t about to stand up and challenge her (I’m trying to enjoy the exhibit like everyone else).  When she completed her introduction and the fancy projections were through, the group of us were sent through the doors into the first part of the exhibit.  As I walked along and read the notes next to the artifacts, I couldn’t help but feel a little discouraged.

Once more the wool was draped over the eyes of the layperson when direct claims were made about certain stelae–like the Tel Dan and Merneptah stelae–which favored not only an early conservative dating of the Hebrew Bible but also a united monarchy under David and Solomon.  One plaque read of the Merneptah Stele:

[The Merneptah Stele] refers to “Israel” at this time as a people living somewhere in Canaan. 

This is quite the claim.  While yes, there are scholars out there who might argue the stele talks about a ‘people’, others are not so sure and, once more, this issue is contended.   And then there is the matter of what the stele says about Israel; it doesn’t mention anywhere that they were living in Canaan but that they were desolated there (‘their seed is laid waste’).  And even that translation (and its meaning) is contested.

Then there was the sign that that read ‘Birth of a Nation’ and its contents were mainly about another hotly debated subject: the united monarchy.  I’m not making any specific claims about the stele here or about the existence of a ‘Biblical Israel’, but then again neither should the exhibit.  One has to wonder why a whole section of the exhibit which is dedicated to the Dead Sea Scrolls spends so much time on what many of my colleagues would call ‘Biblical History’ or ‘Biblical Archaeology’.  If anything, ‘nation’ should be the last word used to describe any ancient socio-cultural entity since ‘nation’ is a modern designation for a specific type of state and using it on the ancient ‘Israelites’ is nothing but an anachronistic political move rather than anything proper for an exhibit about the past.

But this part of the exhibit did have some redeeming features.  For one thing they discuss idols and household figurines showing the more diverse cultural dynamic of the Hill Country of Palestine early on in its history.  I am familiar with these votive statues, known as ‘Asherah trees/poles’, and the henotheistic/polytheistic beliefs of the region early on in its history.  But the voice-actor who explained the Asherah votives refrained from calling them what they were, instead refering to them as if they were simple luck charms rather than the cultic objects of worship that they probably were.  That they were there on display at all was good to see.

Actually, despite all the politically-motivated rhetoric, all the pieces on display were fantastic and it is clear they were well taken care of by the IAA.  I have to say that while some perhaps more religious laypeople might enjoy this part of the exhibit, those more critical of the Biblical narratives will find it mind-numbingly annoying.  I was mortified by the rhetoric, but I still enjoyed having a close look at objects I’ve wanted to see in person for some time.

The Main Event: The Dead Sea Scrolls…

Down the stairs from the first half of the exhibit was the main display, the second half I had been waiting for: the Dead Sea Scrolls.  I was looking forward to seeing not just the scrolls (because manuscripts are something I’d like to work with someday as a professional) but loads (oodles and oodles, I believe, is the technical phrasing) of artifacts from the digs at Qumran and surrounding areas.

Down the stairs I went and in the center of the room was a circular display table with the scrolls illuminated around it.  All in all there were ten scrolls on display featuring:

  1. Paleo-Leviticus
  2. Aramaic Levi
  3. Isaiah Commentary
  4. Book of War
  5. Minor Prophets (in Greek)
  6. Apocryphal Lamentations
  7. Psalms
  8. Community Rule
  9. Deuteronomy ‘Song of Moses’
  10. Pseudo-Ezekial

I have to say I found it fascinating.  Being up close to a scroll like that which is also extremely old is really an awesome experience.  I wasn’t just looking at it on a page of a book but I was actively able to review it, see the old etched lines the scribes used to maintain straight writing across the scroll (they ‘hang’ from the lines), follow along with the Greek first hand.  One particular item I found worthy of note is that on the scroll written in Greek (Minor Prophets) every once in a while you come across the paleo-Hebrew word ‘god’.  This suggests, at least to me, that the scribes were likely multilingual.  But while I really enjoyed the scrolls, there were some other issues I found (or thought were missing completely) throughout the second half of the exhibit that I think should be raised.

The round display area featuring the scrolls. Photo: http://www.discoverytsx.com/

First, I was disappointed in the limited amount of artifacts featured from Qumran.  Aside from a few jars (and obviously the scrolls) nothing of any significance that I can remember was on hand for the exhibit.  And I really spent some time looking.  Instead, pieces from Jerusalem, Masada, and other digs were prominent surrounding the Dead Sea Scrolls which was upsetting.  I thought I had bought tickets to see the Dead Sea Scrolls and to find out more about the Qumran area. Instead I felt I had been swindled into paying for and listening to a lecture about ‘ancient Israel’ given by William Dever.   It isn’t even that I wouldn’t want to listen to Dever speak (I would, if only because I’ve read him and hear so much about him from colleagues), but at least tell me that beforehand so I know for what I’m paying.

Frankly I wasn’t there to look at Byzantine crosses and menorahs (though I did find them all very interesting regardless) and I certainly didn’t care for the random section of stone from the Western Wall (its a fun tradition, but how does it even begin to fit in with the theme of the Dead Sea?).  I don’t care if the event was sponsored by Hershel Shanks (I don’t think it was, though some of his books were featured at the gift shop)–and believe me when I say some of it felt as though I had walked into a copy of BAR–I wanted to see what I came there to see.  In the end I saw pieces I could just as easily see at UPenn (and for a whole hellova lot less than I paid for my ticket at the Discovery Center).

I was also dismayed to find that they consider the Dead Sea Scrolls to be a part of a sectarian effort (that is to say, that the scrolls were penned by a single sect).  While they never straight out claimed the Essenes wrote the scrolls (as Geza Vermes does, and while he is estimable and learned I respectfully disagree with this conclusion),  the constant reference to a ‘sectarian group’ was, I felt, misleading.  There are too many troubling issues to contend with when one claims all the scrolls came from a singular source.  We can’t know that.  Many scholars feel this is the likely case (I don’t), but I don’t know of many who are so quick to claim with any certainty that it is a fact.  Yet, once again, this exhibit does portray this hypothesis as a fact.  It is an unfortunate and uncritical problem repeated throughout the exhibit.

A Final Subject of Note: Talpiot Ossuaries at the Dead Sea Scroll Exhibit?

Talpiot Ossuaries. Yep, these guys. They were there.

Hell yes they were there.  And why?  What reason could they possibly have been there?  I can’t say.  What I can say is I was in shock when I saw them.  I probably grumbled a few select words that were not very professional.  But needless to say the ossuaries from the Talpiot tomb, including the ‘James ossuary’ currently on trial with a possible (probable) forged inscription, were there.

The inscription issue is a tedious subject to get into on a review post of an exhibit, so I won’t.  But others have written on it and I can at least direct the reader to them:

Mark Goodacre (Duke University) has a great series of posts on this:

Joe Zias (Formerly of the IAA; currently of the Science and Archaeology Group at the Hebrew University):

On the Mariamne inscription:

Thankfully, the exhibit doesn’t claim anything as extravagant or as specious as Simcha Jacobovici.  From the notes next to the ossuaries in the handout:

These six ossuaries, found in a tomb in Jerusalem, have inscriptions
that included the names “Jesus,” “Mary,” “Joseph.” While it might be
tempting to claim this tomb belonged to Jesus and his family, these
names are in fact extremely common in the Second temple period.
The New Testament reports that Jesus’ body was placed in the tomb
of a prominent follower named Joseph of Arimathea. Since the early
fourth century Christians have venerated the site of Jesus’ burial at
the Church of the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem’s old City.

But even this may be more misleading than it needs to; of course this is the Discovery Center and Discovery did produce, with James Cameron, Simcha Jacobovici’s docudrama ‘The Jesus Family Tomb’ from years ago, and to which this ‘discovery’ (i.e. the ossuaries)  is attached.

Conclusions and Rating

I’ve been very critical of this exhibit, but don’t take my criticisms for displeasure on my part.  I had a great time.  It was a fun experience and I’d recommend it to anyone, so long as they take my criticisms to heart (in the sense that they remain skeptical of the assertions made by the exhibit and also fact-check everything they read, including this blog!).  There is nothing quite like exploring the ancient world through archaeology and, aside from going out on a dig yourself, going to these sorts of exhibits make for a fun outing.

Because I enjoyed the people and the pieces, I rated it favorably.  I suspect that others may rate it differently depending on the direction their ideologies sway, but overall I tend to think my review has been more positive (if not more critical) than most.  Some things I found discouraging which is why I took away from points.  Still, if you get the chance, go check out the exhibit and, if you think I’ve erred somewhere or if you think I’m being unfair, I’d love to hear from you.

Edit: Jim West provided this video of Dr. Lawrence Schiffman on the exhibit:

Emanuel Pfoh – Anthropology and the Bible: Critical Perspectives (Introduction)

While I am on vacation this weekend, and since we recently sent our imprimatur to the publisher for our own book project (so I no longer have any pressing matters or deadlines), I thought I should catch up on book reviews (since muses never sleep nor do they take vacations, it seems).  Emanuel Pfoh was goodly enough to send over a copy of his edited collection of essays Anthropology and the Bible: Critical Perspectives (Biblical Intersections 3; Piscataway: Gorgias Press, 2010), and since he is a friend, I decided what better place to start?  (Plus, I do have a soft spot for Gorgias Press)

The table of contents can be found listed here (earlier blog post); in a nut-shell, the book contains seven contributions plus an introduction and is broken up into three sections (Method, Criticism, and Case Studies, respectively).  I will start with the introduction and then review each of the three sections individually (rather than by contributor) and write up a final conclusion of the book as a whole when I complete the reviews of the sections.

My initial impression of the book was one of hope; overall the use of sociology and anthropology in Biblical Studies is a mixed bag.  Some sociological studies are quite good (like those by Erich Gruen or John M.G. Barclay) but these tend to focus on periods of time rather than Biblical Studies as a whole (Barclay’s work on Jews in the Diaspora primarily centers on the Hellenistic through Roman periods and Gruen’s work centers on the Hellenistic period).   And these are also about more documented periods in time, wherein we can better gauge the social conflict, the varying types of assimilation, things that might not be so easy to determine from Biblical literature (and in much of these works, pseudepigrapha and inscriptions make up a large portion of their case studies).  Pfoh and his contributors have done a fantastic job of attempting to challenge the status quo in Biblical Studies with the use (and abuse) of sociology and anthropology.

Pfoh writes:

Although some social anthropologists … attempted some work on a sound anthropological comprehension of Biblical images, myths and depicted practices, … and cared little for issues of historicity, in general sociological and anthropological approaches and proper social-scientific criticism of the Old Testament have usually aimed at strengthening a not usually disputed historical image of ancient Israel.  In other words, these approaches have often taken for granted the historicity of many biblical figures, events and socio-historical processes … and proposed anthropological, sociological and/or socio-scientific explanations for realities depending more on ancient stories but hardly confirmed by independent archaeological or historical work.

I believe this is quite telling of the general thrust of the collection of essays.  Pfoh also writes (astutely):

My point is that historical reconstructions have been based on an acceptance of the biblical narrative’s ‘historical’ plot and supplemented with socio-anthropological insights.  But the real critical attempt would be to see how anthropology and sociology can modify and enhance our representations of Israel’s historical past without relying or depending slavishly on the Bible’s depictions.

Overall the introduction, as short as it might seen, is packed with reasons to critically examine not only anthropological and sociological roles in the study of the Biblical narratives, but also in their application, that is to say, specifically how and why they might be applied.  His words trace the usefulness of earlier attempts while gently nodding towards the flaw of starting from a presupposition of historicity rather than upon the evidence and where it may lay.  Overall, I am pleased with the production and I believe the route Pfoh has decided to take will make for a fascinating read.  I look forward to the positions laid out in the actual meat of the book.  More to come as I explore it further.

Wife of God: Was Asherah Edited Out of the Bible?

This is old hat as far as scholars go, but I’m glad it is getting wider distribution.  TIME posted the follow article (snippet version):

Some scholars say early versions of the Bible featured Asherah, a powerful fertility goddess who may have been God’s wife.

Research by Francesca Stavrakopoulou, a senior lecturer in the department of Theology and Religion at the University of Exeter, unearthed clues to her identity, but good luck finding mention of her in the Bible. If Stavrakopoulou is right, heavy-handed male editors of the text all but removed her from the sacred book.

What remains of God’s purported other half are clues in ancient texts, amulets and figurines unearthed primarily in an ancient Canaanite coastal city, now in modern-day Syria. Inscriptions on pottery found in the Sinai desert also show Yahweh and Asherah were worshipped as a pair, and a passage in the Book of Kings mentions the goddess as being housed in the temple of Yahweh.

J. Edward Wright, president of The Arizona Center for Judaic Studies and The Albright Institute for Archaeological Research, backs Stavrakopoulou’s findings, saying several Hebrew inscriptions mention “Yahweh and his Asherah.” He adds Asherah was not entirely edited out of the Bible by its male editors.

via Fertility Goddess Asherah: Was ‘God’s Wife’ Edited Out of the Bible? – TIME NewsFeed.

Read on for the full article.  There are some problematic things with article (for one, the ‘Bible’ did not yet exist at the time when Asherah would have (a) been included in the books referenced and (b) when the redactors would have removed her, so the title is misleading).  Overall it is a decent public expression of the facts, and a lot of it is acceptable.  But while TIME is just posting this now, the concept behind this article had been expressed years ago, perhaps best noted by “maximalist” William Dever (we minimalists sometimes give Bill a free pass) in *gasp* BAR (I know, sacrilege!) in 2008:

The small house shrine published here for the first time provides significant support for the contention that the Israelite God, Yahweh, did indeed have a consort. At least this was true in the minds of many ordinary ancient Israelites, in contrast to the priestly elite.1 In what I call folk religion, or “popular religion,” Yahweh’s consort is best identified as “Asherah,” the old Canaanite mother goddess.2

Some of the most powerful evidence for this contention is in the Bible itself. The fact that the Bible condemns the cult of Asherah (and other “pagan” deities) demonstrates that such cults existed and were perceived as a threat to Israelite monotheism. Based on the Biblical texts alone, we can conclude that many ancient Israelites, perhaps even the majority, worshiped Asherah, Astarte, the “Queen of Heaven” and perhaps other female deities. Their sanctuaries (ba¯môt, or “high places”), we are told, were “on every hill and under every green tree.” (The phrase recurs numerous times in Kings and the Prophets.)

Some of the clearest physical evidence for the existence of a cult of Asherah is the growing collection of small house shrines. The technical name is naos (plural, naoi), a Greek word that means “temple” or “inner sanctum.”

(Reproduced here but for a small fee(!) you can get it on BAR)

And the great  scholar, the late G. W. Ahlström, in his book The History of Ancient Palestine (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1994) discusses the subject to some degree and earlier still, in 1963, in his book Aspects of Syncretism in Israelite Religion (C.W.K. Gleerup).

Also Mark S. Smith deals with this subject extensively in his many works on the origins of Biblical monotheism (The Early History of God: Yahweh and the Other Deities in Ancient Israel [Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2002], The Origins of Biblical Monotheism: Israel’s Polytheistic Background and the Ugaritic Texts [Oxford: OUP, 2003], God in Translation: Deities in Cross-Cultural Discourse in the Biblical World [Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2010]) and the contextual “religious” aspects of the ancient world.

Of course this list isn’t comprehensive, but it does express a very large gap in time between what scholarship discusses and when the public learns about it.  This is a problem that hopefully the internet will continue to solve, though for those interested, above are reliable resources for the study of the subject matter.

The Dead Sea Scrolls are Being Google-Bookized « Zwinglius Redivivus

The Dead Sea Scrolls are Being Google-Bookized « Zwinglius Redivivus.

The Dead Sea scrolls will soon be available to anyone with an internet connection. Search engine Google and the Israel Antiquities Authority have revealed plans for an online archive of the scrolls, which number around 900. The images will appear in high definition, with a special camera costing more than £157,000 used to photograph the scrolls. The organisers hope that the website will be live by the beginning of 2011. Users will also be challenged by “the ultimate puzzle game”; a chance to join up the thousands of pieces of scroll into one virtual document.

Then, as Now, It’s Judaisms and not Judaism (via Zwinglius Redivivus)

The idea that either Judaism or Christianity exist as monoliths is a common misconception. It is good to see that this inaccuracy is being dispelled in the blog-o-sphere.

Then, as Now, It's Judaisms and not Judaism On Judaisms- an observation. Judaism is not now, nor has it ever been, a monolith.  Any more than Christianity. Jews in Jesus’ day argued as much among themselves as Jews of our day. This is why all talk of ‘the Jews’ or even ‘Jews’ requires extensive qualification and why New Testament scholars need to be much more careful in describing ‘Judaism’. The general population isn’t equipped to know which fragment of the many Judaisms are in mind when … Read More

via Zwinglius Redivivus


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