Amazing news for scholars of Early Judaism: the Israel Antiquities Authority will be collaborating with Google in a major digitization project aiming to make the entire corpus of Dead Sea Scrolls available online for free. Since the 1990s, considerable effort has been made to increase access to these unique materials, in contrast to the secrecy and obfuscation that characterized work on the scrolls in the years after their discovery in the 1940s. While the Internet has certainly had some negative implications for teaching and scholarship, projects like this epitomize the tremendous advantages technology can offer scholars of antiquity as well.
a view of the theater from herod's private box
This summer I had the opportunity to visit a number of sites related to Herodian Dynasty in Israel. One of the interesting things about Herod the Great (37 BCE-4 BCE) is his relationship to the major players involved in the emergence of the Roman Empire. Initially allied with Mark Antony, after Octavian’s victory, Herod courted his favor. He met Octavian at Rhodes where he turned his loyalty to Mark Antony into a positive factor, proclaiming that his loyalty would now be directed toward Octavian. After Octavian’s acceptance of his loyalty, Herod built Ceasarea Maritima in the then-named Augustus’ honor.
Ceasarea wasn’t the only Herodian building project reflecting Roman influence. Although Herod’s building at Herodium, a hill South of Jerusalem, began prior to Herod’s connections to Augustus, archeologist Ehud Netzer suggests that the building project may have been part of Herod’s attempt at demonstrating his sophistication to Roman elites. The site at Herodium included a luxury palace, gardens, a large bath complex and a theater. Recently, Netzer and his team, who had been searching for Herod’s tomb, discovered a private theater box at the top of theater. This box has recently been featured in the National Geographic. As the images in the article reveal, the box was sumptuously painted, including faux windows and scenes of the Nile, which were especially popular among Romans. When the group I traveled with this summer met with Netzer, he showed us the box, which Zealots later turned into a kitchen, explaining that he believed Herod had this painted especially to impress his Roman guests. These paintings, in fact, are some of the few Roman paintings in Judea with human and animal figures. Other Herodian decorative arts, such as the mosaics at Masada, refrain from depicting such figures. This is something scholars have attributed to Herod’s compliance with the Jewish prohibitions against images. This box potentially challenges some of the the assumptions scholars have held about Herod and his relation to Jewish tradition.
Here’s a link to a great recent post by Kate Daley-Bailey from the religionnerd blog on what she perceives as the similarities between the Heliand or the so-called ‘Saxon Gospel’ and the latest incarnation (get it?) of so-called ‘Muscular Christianity’ in the form of recent rants by Glenn Beck. ‘Muscular Christianity’ is a common label for visions of Christian faith that are triumphalist and aggressive, for example when Beck loudly proclaims that while Jesus had sympathy for victims, he was not himself a victim (a comment with anti-Semitic implications followed, which has received some attention in the liberal media).
What counts for me here is the link to the Heliand, a document that is not widely known or appreciated for its historical value (except, perhaps, in the field of Saxon Studies). In the late eighth and early ninth century, the Carolingian Empire pursued an aggressive policy of expansion and forced Christianization in northern Europe. Famously, at the so-called ‘Massacre of Verden’ in 782, a large number of defeated Saxons were forcibly converted and then killed just south of the Jutland, in the frontier area between Francia, Saxony, and Scandinavia. (In his excellent recent history of the Vikings, Robert Ferguson speculates that events like this were the direct cause of the Viking Age, in which devastating attacks on the Christian Church in raids like the one that destroyed the monastery at Lindisfarne in 793 were common and deliberate.)
The Heliand is obviously an artifact of the cultural and religious turmoil of this era. On the one hand, the Franks may very well have “Christianized” the Saxons, but the vision of Jesus as a savage warrior-chieftain in this “gospel” indicates that, at least for the author of this work, Christianity could be saxonized as well.
Amidst all the bad news for those of us in the humanities lately - see this article about the recent decision to close the French, Italian, Russian, Theater and Classics departments at SUNY Albany – it seemed like we needed a little something to make us laugh. As always, The Onion delivers: check out this piece on the invention of Ancient Greece.
Ok, well maybe just the Colisseum. This installation is sort of old news by now (the exhibit launched for three nights in mid-September), but this photo is just too cool not to share. There’s also a video.
Like many ancient cities, Rome and its inhabitants often faced the fury of the flames. One of the emperor Augustus’ chief achievements was to institute the Vigiles, fire fighters organized by city district. Some, perhaps even most, of you will be familiar with the factoid that Nero performed ‘The Fall of Troy’ while Rome burned in 64 – and then blamed it on the Christians. (It doesn’t help his case that the site of his infamous Domus Aurea, or Golden House, was built on the part of the Palatine, Esquiline, and Caelian hills destroyed by the fire!) Whatever the truth behind that, that ‘great’ fire was just one of several in Rome’s history, and the idea of a burning Rome has played some part in the contemporary cultural imagination. Look and listen for it.
The recent discovery of this Roman helmet has had people talking: would it have been worn by a soldier in a military procession? What are we to make of the ‘oriental’ elements, like the Phrygian cap? Is there a link to the worship of Mithras, or was it part of some other mythological re-enactment? Regardless of your perspective, this is a stunning piece. Check out the original article and see what people are saying.
UPDATE: The helmet did very well at auction!
Arhat (Luohan), mid-14th century, Northern China
Today’s New York Times features a review of an amazing new exhibition of Chinese art and artifacts produced under the Yuan dynasty (1271-1368), founded by Khubilai Khan, the grandson of Genghis Khan. One of four Mongol successor states that divided the vast territory conquered by Genghis Khan after his death in 1227 (which also included most of the Islamic world, Central Asia, and the vast steppeland reaching from Mongolia itself all the way to Eastern Europe), the Yuan dynasty dominated East Asia for almost a century. After the disruptions caused by the conquests, the Yuan eventually presided over an amazing cultural and religious revival in which native Chinese elements were reshaped according to Mongol aesthetic tastes, and often synthesized with elements drawn from other nearby cultures. While we tend to view the Mongols as vicious and destructive, the Yuan — like the Mongol Ilkhanid dynasty that ruled Iran and Iraq in this period — came to deeply appreciate the culture and traditions of the people they ruled, and some of the greatest artistic achievements of Chinese art and architecture were produced under their patronage. My favorite piece is this amazing wood sculpture of an arhat or Buddhist saint, though I would also want to point out the portrait of Jesus as a Manichaean sage.