More Campsites and Bike Trails in Israel

I’ve always been struck by how few people in Israel are involved in recreational activities and how little developed the country is in that regard.  There are a lot of Shabbat bikers in the Shephelah, and during the fall and spring holidays, places like the shoreline of the Sea of Galilee are packed with campers.  But biking is dangerous on the roads, and campsites that have even water are few and far between.  The government has just announced a plan to make things better. From the JPost:

Prime Minister Ehud Olmert has launched two programs to encourage Israel’s citizens to get out and enjoy nature. During a special cabinet session held inside a cave at the Beit Shearim national park in the lower Galilee on Sunday morning, Olmert announced one plan to crisscross the country from North to South with bike trails and another program to upgrade dozens of camping sites. “We will… upgrade dozens of camping sites where people can enjoy the best conditions for an overnight stay, and all the necessary equipment, to change nature trips into… places where people can enjoy themselves. “We want to promote the popular sport. You, of course, know that I like exercising, [but] unfortunately, I can’t do what I want all Israel’s citizens to be able to – run, enjoy nature, ride bikes on the paths that will stretch from North to South for hundreds of kilometers,” the prime minister said at the opening of the meeting…. An interministerial committee headed by the Tourism Ministry will spearhead the project to turn Israel into a premier global destination for bikers. A total of NIS 100m. – NIS 20m. a year until 2013 – has been budgeted for the plan. The committee will have six months to present the initial plan for trails to be established as soon as possible and is expected to present a five year plan within a year. According to statistics presented at the cabinet meeting, there are 60,000 sport riders in Israel and bike sales go up 20% every year. The plan seeks to encourage biking by building an Israel Trail for biking from Metulla to Eilat, parts of which have already been constructed. Circular paths for family biking and more challenging rides will also be constructed, and urban biking as an environmentally friendly alternative to cars will be encouraged.

The full story is here.


The "Jesus Tomb": One Year Later

A well-written review of the controversy about the “Jesus’ Tomb” has been published on National Review.  The author is Thomas F. Madden, a professor of history at St. Louis University, and he covers the events since the “discovery” last year in an engaging and humorous way.  The article begins:

A year ago the Discovery Channel delivered a cheery Easter message to America’s Christians: Jesus is dead – and we found his tomb.
After much fanfare and hype, The Lost Tomb of Jesus aired on March 4, 2007 to an audience of 4.1 million viewers. The documentary, which was directed by the journalist Simcha Jacobovici (better known as the host of The Naked Archaeologist) and produced by James Cameron (better known as the director of Titanic and True Lies), revealed that the Biblical account of Jesus’ burial in the tomb of Joseph of Arimathea and subsequent Resurrection was just wishful thinking. The truth, they claimed, was that the deceased Jesus was brought to his family tomb in Jerusalem, where he remained good and dead.
And Jacobovici and Cameron had the facts to prove it. For example, they revealed a stone ossuary (a repository for bones) that just possibly might have the words “Jesus, son of Joseph” on it. (The handwriting is poor, so scholars disagree on the actual inscription.) Another of the ossuaries has the name “Mary” on it. And another one is inscribed “Mariamene e Mara,” which — if you squint your eyes just right — looks like “Mariamne,” which was used by a writer more than 200 years later to refer to Mary Magdalene. Get it? That fits perfectly with the chronicle of ancient wisdom known as The Da Vinci Code, which asserts that Jesus and Mary Magdalene were married! Even more startling, one of the other ossuaries bears the name “Judah, son of Jesus,” who must have been the son of Jesus and Mary (obviously born before Mary rushed off to have her daughter in Gaul, as The Da Vinci Code attests).

The rest is here.

HT: Joe Lauer


Temple Mount Sifting Project: Video

I’ve mentioned the on-going sifting operation of the Temple Mount debris before (here and here), but I haven’t noted a relatively new video about the project.  The video is about 5 minutes long and gives a good overview of what they are doing and why.  If you’re interested in participating in the “excavation,” but don’t want to go alone, there’s a group going with the Associates of Biblical Research this summer.


Hurvah Synagogue Restoration Almost Complete

Reconstruction of the Hurvah synagogue in the Jewish Quarter is nearly finished.  Like the original, this will be a landmark in the Old City.  From the Jerusalem Post:

It was a focal point of Jewish spiritual and cultural life in Jerusalem. It hosted the installation of the Ashkenazi chief rabbis of Palestine, and the historic addresses by Theodor Herzl at the turn of the century and by Rabbi Avraham Yitzhak Hacohen Kook over the fate of European Jewry before the outbreak of World War II. And now, six decades after it was destroyed by the Jordanians in 1948, during the War of Independence, a page of Old City history is being revisited: the Hurva Synagogue is being rebuilt. Shortly after the city’s reunification in the Six Day War, the first in a series of plans was drawn up to create a new synagogue at the site. Deliberations dragged on for decades over a variety of building proposals, and a commemorative arch was constructed at the site in 1978, spanning the space where the Hurva once stood. The 16-meter high stone arch – which became a prominent Jewish Quarter landmark as well as a great place to stop for photographs and a feature of many Jewish Quarter postcards – was a recreation of one of the four arches that originally supported the synagogue’s monumental dome.

The story continues here and includes a photo.  This story was previously covered (with several photos) on this blog here.


Jerome Murphy-O'Connor, The Holy Land, 5th Ed.

The best archaeological guide to Israel is now out in its fifth edition.  The Holy Land: An Oxford Archaeological Guide, by Jerome Murphy-O’Connor is the best companion for a trip to ancient sites jmoanywhere in Israel.  The section on Jerusalem is especially lengthy (150 pages in the 4th edition), and the whole is accurate and readable.  Don’t expect to find out about hotels or restaurants – this is a guide to archaeological sites only!  The 4th edition came out in 1998, so while I haven’t yet seen the new edition, I expect it will have significant updates.  The author has lived in Jerusalem longer than I have been alive.


60 Minutes on the James Ossuary

The Easter story for “60 Minutes” this year is about the bonebox inscribed with “James, son of Joseph, brother of Jesus.”  The 13-minute video segment and a written transcript is available online

In terms of production, the video is outstanding.  They have beautiful footage, dramatic interviews, and a clear storyline.  This 13-minute story will make understandable to millions what five years of scholarly debate has not.  But I’d recommend watching this for entertainment value than for factual analysis.  There are many problems with this “reporting.”

The first issue is the lack of scholarly testimony.  Only a few scholars are interviewed and only one is allowed to give his verdict about inscription’s authenticity.  Witherington and the Pfanns are quoted only about the excitement and possible value of the inscription.  Silberman gets double the airtime, and his statements about authenticity (or lack thereof) seem to be carefully crafted for dramatic effect.  The story does not give the background for any of these individuals, so it’s worth noting that Silberman is not an archaeologist nor a paleographer.  He is a popular writer about biblical and archaeological subjects.  He has co-written several books claiming that the Bible is a fraud, so it’s not surprising that he thinks that an inscription that supports the Bible is also a fraud.  Unfortunately none of the scholars who specialize in this area were interviewed (or included), and most of them think the inscription is likely authentic.

While the story’s title would have you believe that this is a story about the James Ossuary, only the first half of the story discusses the bonebox.  From that point on, the producers try to condemn the ossuary using guilt by association.  This is the only way they can make the story work, because most scholars think the inscription is authentic.  The argument against the inscription is that

1) the ossuary came from the collection of Oded Golan;

2) Golan had tools that could be used for making forgeries;

3) an Egyptian claims that he made other forgeries for Golan (but not this one).

What they insinuate and omit is more significant than what they report. 

1) Did Golan forge the inscription or did the Egyptian?  It doesn’t matter, as long as they can create doubt in the viewer’s mind.

2) Is Golan and/or the Egyptian capable of creating such a perfect inscription?  Most scholars say they could not.  60 Minutes misleads by quoting a policeman who says that the Egyptian is a skilled craftsman. They don’t quote Ada Yardeni who says that if Golan faked it, “he’s a genius.  But I don’t believe it.” 

3) There is no mention of the old photograph that Golan has of the ossuary with the inscription.  The authenticity of the photograph is disputed, but if authentic, it is compelling evidence that the inscription was not forged.

4) Did Golan pass a polygraph?  I don’t know, but it seems like a simple test that would be of relevance. 

5) Why is such an open-and-shut case taking the Israeli police more than three years in court? 

6) Was the inscription forged or only part of the inscription?  Like several components of the story, they want to have it both ways. 

In 13 minutes, one cannot expect all of the evidence to be presented, but it is noteworthy that CBS has given us a glimpse of the prosecution’s case rather than an even-handed treatment.  Even the multiple uses of an interview with Golan is intended to support their case.  I haven’t read of anybody who supports or trusts Golan.  He certainly doesn’t exude credibility on screen. But the issue isn’t about him.  Even if he forged 1,000 pieces, that doesn’t prove that the ossuary inscription is fake. 

Sitting on a toilet doesn’t prove that it is fake either.  Maybe it is, but it is certainly better to analyze the artifact itself rather than its circumstances.  But this they do not do.  The fact is that many scholars believe that the entire inscription is very likely authentic, including Ada Yardeni, Bezalel Porten, Gabriel Barkay, and Andre Lemaire.  The inclusion of the toilet photograph and the failure to include even one specialist of ancient inscriptions proves that this story is about entertainment and not facts.

One final note: Forgery of antiquities and looting of antiquities are major problems in Israel and around the world.  These crimes should be prosecuted aggressively.  But when a majority of the specialists believe an alleged forgery to be authentic, it is time to pursue other cases.


Ancient Jewish Reactions to Pagan Statues

I found the subject of this article in the Jewish Journal to be quite interesting.  How would a Jewish rabbi react to statues of Greek and Roman gods?  One point that the writer does not seem to recognize though is the ease with which hellenized cities could be avoided.  Just as one can easily live in Israel today and avoid the “pagan centers” of Tel Aviv and Eilat, it is not difficult to imagine the religious avoiding Beth Shean and Caesarea in the Roman period.  To give one example, there is no record that Jesus ever entered either city.

Imagine a rabbi encountering a statue of Zeus in Roman Palestine, circa 70 to 300 C.E. — a monotheist’s nightmare.
“The myth is that he would have uttered something like the Yiddish ‘gevalt,'” said professor Yaron Z. Eliav of the University of Michigan, who recently spoke about Jews and statues at the Getty Villa in Pacific Aphrodite, Pan, Eros group from Delos, 100 BC, tb030806078 Palisades. “We imagine he would have put his hand over his face, the way an ultra-Orthodox Jew might shield his eyes from a poster of a woman in a bikini.”
But the sages who wrote classical texts, such as the Talmud, could not afford to ignore such statues, which were like the mass media of the ancient world.
Images of gods, mythological monsters, sports heroes and emperors were everywhere: atop pedestals and in niches, adorning public buildings, temples, fountains and tetrapyla, the colonnaded structures marking street intersections. They were intended to be lifelike and often heavily painted, as revealed in the Getty’s new exhibition, “The Color of Life: Polychromy in Sculpture From Antiquity to the Present.”
“One could not have strolled heavily Jewish cities such as Tiberias or Caesarea without encountering Roman sculpture every step of the way,” said Eliav, as he strolled amid ancient statues at the museum. “While the assumption has been that the sages opposed everything Graeco-Roman, they were in fact far more sophisticated and varied in their response.”

The article continues here.

HT: Joe Lauer


Steven Fine lecture: Imagining the Temple

History Talk:

In conjunction with the exhibit

Imagining the Temple:

The Models of Leen Ritmeyer

Steven Fine on


Sunday, March 30, 2008

2 pm

Ever since the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 CE, Jews and, later, Christians, have tried to picture what the Jerusalem Temple looked like. During the 20th century, this imagining often resulted in three-dimensional models of the Temple. In this talk, Steven Fine, professor of Jewish History at Yeshiva University, sets the Ritmeyer models within the contexts of Jewish and Christian conceptions of the Jerusalem Temple. 

Free with Museum admission.

Yeshiva University Museum

15 West 16th Street

New York, NY 10011

HT: Joe Lauer


Temple Tax Coin Discovered in Jerusalem

Arutz-7 reports the discovery of a “half-shekel” from the City of David, but there are several questions about the story.  On the biblical-studies list, Jack Kilmon writes that this coin, a Tyrian tetradrachm, was similar to a shekel, not a half-shekel.  According to the article, only seven other Tyrian shekels or half shekels have been found in excavations in Jerusalem.  The coin was found in the excavations of Reich and Shukrun, which were mentioned in a story yesterday as being halted by the Israeli High Court of Justice.

A half-shekel coin from the Second Temple was found in excavations in the City of David, just below and east of Jerusalem’s Old City. The upcoming Purim festival features the half-shekel prominently in its observance.

The ancient silver coin was discovered in an archaeological excavation that is being conducted in the main Second Temple-era drainage channel of Jerusalem. The foreign coin is of the denomination used during the turbulent Second Temple period to pay the Biblical half-shekel head-tax.
This coming Thursday night (Saturday night for Jerusalemites), before reading the Megillah (Scroll) of Esther, Jews worldwide will contribute a sum of money to charity in remembrance of that half-shekel command.

The Arutz-7 report continues and it also has some great photos of the coin.

HT: Joe Lauer


City of David Excavation Halted by Court

From Haaretz:

The High Court of Justice issued a temporary restraining order against the Israel Antiquities Authority (IAA), ordering a halt to an archaeological dig in the Silwan neighborhood of Jerusalem, after local Arab residents complained that the excavations were being carried out underneath their homes and without their approval. They claimed that according to the law, the IAA is required to notify property owners if they want to dig under their property. After the suit was filed, the police arrested three of the seven plaintiffs. (Meron Rapoport)

This is a reference to the excavations headed by Ronny Reich and Eli Shukrun in the vicinity of the Pool of Siloam.  This excavation has been covered before here.

HT: Joe Lauer

Siloam street with steps from south, tb021907910
Herodian Street from Pool of Siloam to Temple Mount