Queries & Comments
I found the article about Nehemiah’s wall well written and fascinating (Eilat Mazar, “The Wall That Nehemiah Built,” BAR 35:02). I do have one question about the broken clay figurines found from the Babylonian destruction of Jerusalem: Are the figurines associated with the Israelites? Didn’t the Israelites avoid making human images? Are these figurines a product of the Babylonians? Or were the Israelites worshiping idols?
Land O’Lakes, Florida
Eilat Mazar responds:
The figurines in the excavations include mainly four-legged animal figurines (possibly horses) and females—most likely the goddess Ashtoret. The figurines are all covered with a white wash typical of cult objects from the end of the First Temple period. And all the figurines are broken. The breaks usually occurred at the weakest joints of the figurines (the neck, the arms and legs, and at the bosom). Unbroken figurines like these are rare. It’s difficult to decide whether they were deliberately or accidentally broken.
From the hundreds of these locally made figurines found in Israelite houses at the end of the First Temple period—both in the City of David and at other sites in Israel—it is clear that they were very popular.
Of course this can be seen as a contradiction of the commandment against idolatry, but it seems to me that these figures were not idols of God (or gods), but rather a much simpler, unsophisticated human behavior, tangibly expressing the common hope for improved fertility, protection, strength, etc. This came in addition to their monotheistic beliefs.
Still, this interesting subject requires further investigation.
Orpheus as David—Orpheus as Christ?
I was very interested in the article by Jaś Elsner, “Double Identity: Orpheus as David. Orpheus as Christ?” (BAR 35:02). I especially appreciate the BAR staff’s work on the art. These are stunning reproductions of both the Jerusalem and Gaza mosaics. I only wish I had had such support when I used this Jerusalem mosaic in my work on Orphic imagery in Psalm 151, published in my The Dead Sea Psalms Scroll (1967, pp. 94–103).
I have questions, however, about Elsner’s article. In it, he uses interesting words like “transmogrified,” “syncretistic” and “assimilated” to indicate how some ancient efforts to relate figures that were comparable in different, but mostly contemporary, cultures might be understood. And, of course, Christianity absorbed a considerable amount of Greco-Roman culture, driving it further and further away from Judaism. In Jewish Hellenistic literature, however, it was not at all uncommon to explain figures in Jewish tradition by reference to similar figures in the Greek world. There were also efforts to explain ancient Jewish figures to Greeks by depicting them as comparable to theirs, or even to argue that great names from Jewish history could match anything the Greco-Roman world had to offer. Jewish ideas also were sometimes attributed to Greco-Roman figures, such as the Sybilline Oracles. There was considerable cross-cultural activity of this sort. The fear of assimilation of “pagan” ideas into Judaism and Christianity apparently did not bother the ancients as much as it does some moderns.
I have argued that the Hebrew text of Psalm 151 in 014the large Dead Sea Scroll Psalms Scroll portrays King David in two of its verses in Orphic terms. Precisely those two verses were excised from the Greek and Syriac versions of these Psalms. They were apparently offended by the Orphic imagery.
Some scholars at the time were incensed at my suggestion that Hellenistic imagery can be found in Dead Sea Scroll literature from Qumran; and no fewer than 17 different, awkward translations of this Hebrew Psalm were offered instead of mine. But no one explained the expunging of those two verses in the later, more orthodox Jewish translations, and none of these translations has been accepted.
Would Byzantine Christian mosaic artists have made similar efforts to explain one culture to and by another? According to available evidence, yes. The Jerusalem mosaic intended to portray Orpheus as King David. (Certainly the Gaza mosaic meant to do so; he is identified as David in the mosaic itself.) Whether the Jerusalem mosaic also intended Christ to be understood in these Orphic terms is another question. On this, Elsner says no. But he would have been greatly aided had he consulted Père M.-J. Lagrange’s trenchant investigation of the whole question of Orphism in Judaism and Christianity in his Les Mystères: l’Orphisme (1937). Lagrange cited five cases of cemetery art in which Christ is indeed portrayed as Orpheus, and about 20 other cases of Orpheus/Christ as “le bon Pasteur” (the good pastor) or “le bon berger” (the good shepherd). Lagrange explained that Orpheus was sometimes presented as a good shepherd who guided flocks with his music and this made for a ready depiction of the Christ in Orphic terms. Lagrange also made the telling point that since the Jerusalem mosaic was funerary and dated probably to the sixth century, it was highly unlikely that it would have 016been purely “pagan” since no pagans were left in Byzantine Jerusalem by that time. Even if it was not funerary, as Elsner contends, would a Byzantine Christian have been so “secular” as to have a mosaic done for his home depicting Orpheus only, as Elsner contends. I think not.
Incidentally, almost all the work on the Jerusalem Orpheus mosaic was done by Père Lagrange, though he attributed the clearing of the mosaic in situ in 1900–1901 and the watercolor of it to his student Père L.-H. Vincent, to whom he also dedicated the 1937 book. The mosaic was “discovered” however, by neither, but by an immigrant Iraqi Jew, who after finding it on his property in Jerusalem, promptly reported it to the Ottoman authorities, who, in turn, entrusted study of it to the Dominicans of St. Stephen’s (now the École biblique et archéologique Française) just north of the Damascus Gate.
James A. Sanders
The author is professor emeritus at Claremont School of Theology and founder of the Ancient Biblical Manuscript Center.—Ed.
In “Rare Magic Inscription on Human Skull” (BAR 35:02), Dan Levene presents an inscribed human skull, recently acquired by collector Shlomo Moussaieff, and reviews a few other human skulls bearing an inscription in Jewish Aramaic. The inscriptions on these skulls appear to be some type of magical incantation against demons and other evil spirits, the kind found on more than two thousand inscribed incantation bowls from the third to the seventh century C.E. The text on these skulls is mostly fragmentary and hard to read, but the names of demons and other evil spirits (such as Lilith and her ilk) can be identified.
Levene is somewhat baffled, however, by the use of skulls for magical 018purposes. “Why a skull?” he asks. Its curved and bumpy surface does not make writing—or reading—easy. Why use a skull when the custom of inscribing bowls and other objects was so widespread? There seems to be something peculiar about skulls. Levene speculates about the possible necromantic background of these inscribed skulls. Although necromancy was forbidden in Judaism (but sometimes practiced), Levene considers the possibility that “Perhaps the skull was used for this text because it was thought that the spirits of the dead, to which skulls are obviously connected, have access to the supernatural realm.”
In another version of his article on the internet, Levene quotes a passage from the Babylonian Talmud in which skulls are clearly mentioned in the context of necromancy: “There are two kinds of necromancy: the one where the dead is raised by naming him, the other where he is invoked by means of a skull” (Sanhedrin 65b).
Other Jewish sources, basically contemporaneous with Levene’s inscribed bowls and skulls, contain similar allusions to, and reflections of, probably related customs.
Recently I have been looking into the issue of the Biblical teraphim (household gods or idols) as reflecting beliefs related to the world of the dead and their possible role in rites of necromancy. One eighth-century C.E. text (Pirqe de R. Eliezer, ch. 36) makes an interesting and pregnant connection between the Biblical teraphim, the head of a dead person, a certain source of light burning in front of it, and the notion of consulting the dead. The text is as follows: “What are the Teraphim? They slay a man, a firstborn, and they pinch off his head and salt it with salt, and they write upon a golden plate the name of an unclean spirit and place it under his tongue, and they put it in the wall, and they kindle lamps before it and bow down to it, and it speaks unto them.”
Admittedly, an inscribed human skull of the kind discussed by Levene is not mentioned, but rather the salted head of a person. However, some writing activity does seem to be involved here, and the written specimen is to be placed inside the severed head, under the tongue. Also, it is specifically stated that the name of some “unclean spirit” (a demon? Lilith?) is to be written on the designated plate placed in the mouth of the head. Finally, it is clear that we have here some rite of necromancy, for the severed head is supposed to speak.
In a passage in Maimonides’ Mishneh Torah (“The Laws of Idol-Worship” 6:1), necromancy is discussed, one of which methods involves the use of a skull: “One who willingly and knowingly practices necromancy or wizardry is liable to karet (from the Hebrew verb kārat, “to cut off”; this is the Biblical punishment of cutting off a person from among one’s people, meaning practically the extirpation of one’s lineage). What are the acts of necromancy? A necromancer stands and burns specific incenses … and 020speaks slowly in matters known to necromancers … or takes the skull of a dead person, burning incense to it and divining with it.”
These sources, contemporaneous with the inscribed bowls and skulls, raise the question as to whether the use of human skulls/heads involves some ritual of necromancy and consulting the dead. Levene’s speculation does not seem to be totally far-fetched.
The writer is a professor in the department of Biblical studies at the University of Haifa.—Ed.
Is Shanks Sick?
I read the back-and-forth between the scholars about whether the Essenes wrote the Dead Sea Scrolls (Another View: “Do Josephus’s Writings Support the ‘Essene Hypothesis’?” by Jodi Magness, Kenneth Atkinson and Hanan Eshel; Steve Mason’s response; and Hershel Shanks’s “Editor’s Verdict,” BAR 35:02). I found the information very interesting and recognized points on both sides of the debate.
However, I was totally shocked by Hershel Shanks’s “final word.” He did not insult either side. He did not take one side against the other. He even gave kudos to both sides for various points. It was the most balanced thing I think he has ever written.
I really have to admit I did not recognize the writing style. Are you sure he is okay? I am very concerned about the future of the magazine if Hershel is going to be fair and balanced.
What will happen to the magazine when Hershel’s energy finally gives out and he is no longer able to incite venom and wrath from various groups and people around the world?
Thanks for the inquiry. I’m able to sit up and take nourishment.—H.S.