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Dead Sea Scrolls Fragments of Dubious Authenticity

In November last year, the popular press featured news of scholarly doubts about the authenticity of many of the numerous putative scroll fragments from the Dead Sea area that had come on the antiquities market in the last fifteen years or so:  e.g., here, and here.  Yesterday, I finally got around to perusing the published scholarly studies that generated these news stories.  The key publications are two lengthy articles in the journal Dead Sea Discoveries, which I heartily recommend to anyone seriously interested in the topic:

Kipp Davis et al., “Nine Dubious ‘Dead Sea Scrolls’ Fragments From the Twenty-First Century,” Dead Sea Discoveries 24.2 (2017):  189-228.

Kipp Davis, “Caves of Dispute: Patterns of Correspondence and Suspicion in the Post-2002 ‘Dead Sea Scrolls’ Fragments,” Dead Sea Discoveries 24.2 (2017): 229-70.

Davis has been a key figure in the analysis of these fragments, and these articles reflect an impressive scholarly effort that drew upon a variety of disciplines and technology.  So, e.g., detailed analysis showed that, although the writing material was old, in some cases the ink of the writing had been written on top of the sediment that had accrued on the writing material.  This leads to the conclusion that someone obtained blank pieces old writing material (e.g., parchment or papyrus) and forged the writing on it.  In at least one other case, analysis showed that ordinary table salt had been used to “fix” the writing.

But I was also (perhaps even more) impressed with the forensic analysis of the writing itself.  There was “bleeding” of the ink into the writing material (something you don’t see in truly ancient manuscripts).  In some papyrus fragments, the writing was across the (vertical) fibers, whereas the more common (and the easier) way to copy on papyrus was to write along the (horizontal) fibers.

Also, Davis and others noted the curious way that the fragments all contained sufficient text to allow readily identification as portions of biblical texts.  Having worked myself on the nineteen Greek fragments from Qumran Cave 7, only one of which has sufficient text to permit it to be identified with some confidence, this certainly added to my suspicions.

Over the last fifteen years or so, some wealthy private collectors have been keen to obtain ancient manuscripts, even fragments of ancient manuscripts.  Perhaps the most salient of these efforts is reflected in the recently opened Museum of the Bible (Washington, DC).  It now seems likely that at least some of the recently acquired fragments that purport to come from the Dead Sea area and are held by the Museum and some other collectors are fakes.  To be more precise, they are forgeries in the legal sense of the term:  fakes produced in order to make money from their sale.  The various collectors were duped.  Eager to acquire items, and naive about how to do so, they were taken in.

To their credit, the Museum administration apparently put notices on the relevant items on display indicating that there is scholarly debate about their authenticity.  But, along with the now notorious “Jesus’ wife” fragment, these dubious Dead Sea Scroll fragments warn us that there are people out there who are very ready to produce items that they perceive will appeal to this or that scholarly or collector’s interests.*  It’s another reason why we need to continue to develop scholarly expertise in the technical matters required to assess such items.

*It is sad and disappointing to see that the Harvard Divinity School web pages on the “Jesus’ wife” fragment here still (as of today) make no reference to the studies that demonstrate conclusively (in the minds of most others) that the fragment is a fake.  See the Atlantic story on the guy who produced it here, and Professor King’s acknowledgement that the item is likely a fake here.  Among decisive scholarly work showing the item a fake is Christian Askeland’s article here.

Postdoctoral Fellowships in the University of Birmingham

I forward notice from Dr. Hugh Houghton of postdoctoral fellowships relating to NT studies offered in the University of Birmingham.

We are delighted to announce the advertisement of three postdoctoral fellowships at ITSEE (the Institute for Textual Scholarship and Electronic Editing at the University of Birmingham).

All involve work on Greek New Testament commentary manuscripts, to start this autumn. One is on the AHRC-funded Codex Zacynthius project, using multispectral imaging to recover the text of the earliest catena on Luke. Two are on the ERC-funded CATENA project, producing a catalogue of commentary manuscripts, identifying different stages in their history and development and making electronic transcriptions and editions of their text.

The posts would be suitable for Classicists or scholars of the New Testament and early Christianity with experience of working with Greek manuscripts.
Further details and links to the application portal may be found at:

Candidates may apply for one or more of these positions. The deadline is 11th April 2018.

In addition, the CATENA project is advertising a funded doctoral studentship on the Pseudo-Oecumenian Catena on Romans, suitable for candidates with expertise in Greek and an interest in manuscripts. Further information and application link at:
Closing date 9th April 2018.

Exorcism and Healing in Early Christianity

On the weekend last I returned from a short (but very interesting) conference on “Healing and Exorcism in Second Temple Judaism and Early Christianity,” held in Orebro School of Theology (Orebro, Sweden).  The focus, contributors and paper-titles are listed here.

My own presentation was, “The Ritual Use of Jesus’ Name in Early Christian Exorcism and Healing,” and here is my abstract:

“On the one hand, the use of Jesus’ name in early Christian accounts of healing and exorcism fits within the larger pattern of the invocation of powerful names (e.g., daimons, angels, etc.) in Roman-era exorcism and “magic”.  On the other hand, the invocation of Jesus to the exclusion of other beings/powers suggests something distinctive within that larger pattern.  This particular, even singular, focus on Jesus’ name (and the power/person it represents) likely reflects the unique status accorded to the risen/exalted Jesus in early Christian circles, and, along with some other distinguishing features, gives to early Christian exorcism and healing an identifiable character.”

I posited three main distinguishing features of early Christian exorcism and healing practice.

(1) The exclusivity of Jesus’ name, i.e., earliest texts portray Jesus’ followers as invoking his name alone, in contrast the the use of various and even multiple names/figures in non-Christian practice.

(2)  The early Christian ritual use of Jesus’ name was one facet of a wider devotional pattern in which Jesus figured centrally.  Here again, this distinguishes early Christian practice.  The evidence of various other forms of Jewish ritual practices, and “pagan” practices as well, typically involved invocation of names of powerful beings, but this was not attached to any further devotional practice directed to these beings.  But in early Christian circles, Jesus was invoked at baptism (the initiation rite), and in the collective worship gathering, hymns sung celebrating him, prayers directed through Jesus or to Jesus jointly with God, the shared meal understood as one in Jesus’ honour, et alia.

(3)  The simplicity of method in earliest Christian ritual practice.  Unlike the more elaborate practices portrayed in pagan and other Jewish circles, involving such things as elaborate and fixed spells, the use of fumigations and/or various devices, the reports of earliest Christian practice typically involve a simple command (e.g., to the demonic spirit).

The papers from the conference will appear in a volume to be published by Mohr-Siebeck in due course.  In the meantime, my thanks and appreciation to Dr. Tommy Wasserman and Dr. Mikael Telbe, and their various assistants, for a well-run, informative and cordial conference.


“Christianity at the Crossroads”: US Edition

In an earlier posting here I noted the publication of Michael Kruger’s very useful book on second-century Christianity:  Christianity at the Crossroads.  The US edition has now appeared (IVP Academic, the publisher’s online entry here).

This will make it easier for obtaining the book for use in courses, and it is an excellent introduction to that “Cinderella period” of Christianity.  Kruger wisely chose to provide copious references to primary sources, to guide students into the evidence, rather than to canvass all intricacies of scholarly debates about this or that matter.  But the major issues are certainly addressed, and the major scholarly contributions noted.

PhD Studies: Some Information and Advice

Further to my posting about the most recent data on academic posts in biblical studies, I thought to mention some previous postings in which I provide some information and advice about PhD programmes and studies.

I posted about a recent helpful guide for prospective PhD applicants here.

I’ve also offered some information about the structures of UK and North American PhD programmes, with particular reference to UK programmes in New Testament and Christian Origins here, and, with special reference to how we do things in Edinburgh here.

Academic Jobs in Biblical Studies

Those currently completing a PhD in Biblical Studies, and those contemplating doing so may want to look at the recent report on job-listings from the Society of Biblical Literature here.

The SBL sponsors perhaps the major job-listing facility (especially for North America, but also beyond), and so their figures on matters are likely representative for the field as a whole.

Key findings highlighted by John Kutsko, Executive Director of SBL:

  • Positions advertised in AY17 increased 4.0% compared to AY16. This increase in postings was primarily the result of increased listings for non-faculty positions.
  • The total number of faculty positions decreased by 8.6% year over year from AY16 to AY17. Within this percentage, several mixed findings can be highlighted:
    • Postings from research institutions are at an all-time low since SBL and AAR began collecting employment data in 2003.
    • The number of entry-level faculty positions increased by 11.4% year over year from AY16 to AY17.
    • The number of tenure-track faculty positions reached a six-year low.
    • The number of postings from baccalaureate institutions is at seven-year high.
  • For faculty positions, the most selected category for the annual course load shifted from three to four in 2016 to five to six in 2017.

The report highlights ongoing concerns about the job market in biblical and religious studies. The SBL Council, in collaboration with the membership and stakeholders in our fields, continues to focus on ways to address these concerns. For example, SBL sponsored the new resource, ImaginePhD. We encourage faculty and graduate students to utilize this career exploration and planning tool for the humanities and social sciences. In addition, SBL will begin to conduct further analysis of the job market in the context of annual new PhDs, and also cross reference this analysis with peer learned societies in the humanities and social sciences.

The Megiddo Mosaics and “Prayer Hall”: The Preliminary Report

Further to my earlier posting, I note that the preliminary report on the excavations and finds that include the mosaics in a building near Megiddo is available to those subscribed to

Yotam Tepper and Leah Di Segni, A Christian Prayer Hall of the Third Century CE At Kefar ‘Othnay (Legio) (Jerusalem: Israel Antiquities Authority, 2006).


The Megiddo Mosaics . . . Again?

Over the weekend, I was alerted by a couple of friends about a news story of an exhibition of the Megiddo Christian mosaics: here.  These friends weren’t aware that the mosaics had been discovered and written about  (including a LOT of news coverage) way back in 2005-2007.  I mentioned them in an earlier posting here.

The archaeologist in charge of the dig, Dr Yotam Tepper of the University of Haifa, has continued to insist that the mosaics are early 3rd century CE, which would make them among the earliest Christian epigraphy, and would make the room/church in which the mosaics were placed the earliest Christian structure known.  (The Dura Europos church is dated sometime before 256 CE, when the city was sacked.)

But the date of the mosaics is contested, with others placing them anytime from the late 3rd through the 5th century CE.  To my knowledge, we still don’t have the full archaeological analysis of the dig, for which numismatic evidence would be crucial for dating.  So, it’s a bit surprising that the authorities have chosen to put the mosaics on show, and flog all the news coverage about them.  And it’s disappointing that the news stories (which, apparently, are based on news feed from the exhibitors) make no mention of the scholarly debate about the date of the items.

I give a scholarly analysis by Prof. Edward Adams of the matter published nearly a decade ago:  here.  There is a (somewhat dated) web site that gives a good deal of information as well here.

Bottom line:  (1) the mosaics aren’t really news as they’ve been in the press and in scholarly debate for over a decade, and (2) the scholarly guild is still debating the correct dating of the mosaics, which has a lot to do with their historical import.  More when I know more!

Biblical Canon Lists: A New Book

There is a recently-published valuable resource for study of the formation of the Christian biblical canons:  Edmon L. Gallagher and John D. Meade, The Biblical Canon Lists from Early Christianity:  Texts and Analysis (Oxford University Press, 2017).  The publisher’s online catalog description is here.

The authors’ primary purpose is to lay before readers a collection of early evidence about what writings were treated as part of a canon, focusing on evidence of the first four centuries.  So, the main part of the book is given to setting out this evidence:  Jewish canon lists (chap 2), Greek Christian canon lists (chap. 3), Latin Christian lists (chap. 4), the Syriac Christian list (chap. 5), and a discussion of the writings included in selected Greek, Syriac, Latin, and Hebrew Manuscripts (chap. 6).  An Appendix gives brief information on a number of other writings that are mentioned in early sources but did not get included in either Jewish or (some) Christian canons.

The major benefit of this book is that, for each list included, the authors give a brief introduction, and the actual text in the original language and with an English translation, plus copious notes.  In one handy volume, you have pretty much all the key evidence, which makes this volume a unique contribution.

The authors don’t aim to plead any particular case about the many disputed questions involved in the formation of the Christian canons (and there are more than one).  But the first chapter is a 56-page review and analysis of the questions, with copious citation of the scholarly literature.  The citations  and bibliography are impressively up to date, with works published as recently as 2016.

Christians and Book-Burning in Late Antiquity

I’ve just finished reading Dirk Rohmann, Christianity, Book-Burning and Censorship in Late Antiquity (De Gruyter, 2016; Baylor University Press, 2017), a detailed and wide-ranging study of the effects of Christianity on the survival of classical literature.

Since at least Gibbon (19th century), there have been claims that the “triumph” of Christianity led to the wholesale destruction of the literary heritage of “pagan” antiquity.  Rohmann, therefore, sets out to conduct an analysis that is a free as he can make it from either this sort of anti-Christian animus or simplistic Christian apologetics.

Rohmann’s main theses are (1) that the state-sponsored burning of books is first attested in Diocletian’s order to destroy books owned by Manichaeans, Egyptian alchemists and Christians (early 4th century AD); (2) that thereafter, as Christianity acquired cultural and political clout, ecclesiastical leaders and Christian rulers turned the tables and at various time sought to suppress or destroy some pagan texts; (3) that the writings that Christian leaders opposed were those that were associated with anti-Christian efforts, those that were regarded as supporting heretical teachings, and those that were thought to be inhabited by demons that could lead readers into heresy and/or sin; (4) that more ancient writings were lost through neglect and the failure to copy them than were destroyed actively; and (5) that the actual events and actions were typically localized (and so limited), various (and so not systematic), and often symbolic (and so, in themselves, not all that effective).

The period that Rohmann focuses on lies outside my area of competence, and so I shall have to defer to other historians of “late antiquity” (especially 4th century and thereafter) for a judgement on his specific analysis of relevant evidence.  But I think that Rohmann’s work deserves the attention of scholars of that period.

Unfortunately, however, in the early pages of the book, I note some puzzling errors, especially concerning book formats.  For example, Rohmann states (p. 1) that “ancient codices were mostly made out of parchment.”  Perhaps he meant this to characterize codices in “late antiquity,” for it surely is incorrect in the earlier centuries, in which most codices by far were constructed of papyrus.  It really is only in the 4th century AD that the the dominance of parchment as the preferred writing material is in full flow.

In another passage, Rohmann states “by comparison to papyrus, parchment codices could keep more content and allowed for easier cross-referencing . . . (p. 11).  But, again, he either doesn’t understand the matter or has stated himself badly.  For the writing material makes no substantial difference to the amount of writing, whether papyrus or parchment.  I presume that he’s garbled a claim made by others that, in comparison with the bookroll, the codex could accommodate more text and was easier to cross-reference.

I should also indicate, however, that this claim is dubious.  Ancient bookrolls could accommodate pretty much the amount of text desired, as evident by the Isaiah scroll from Qumran (7.34 metres/24 feet long), or other scrolls from antiquity even much longer, as much as 15 metres.[1]  Granted, by the 4th century AD codex construction had progressed to allow the whole of the Christian Bible to be included in a single codex.  But the Christian preference for the codex preceded this by as much as two centuries, and (with a few notable exceptions) the earliest Christian codices tended to contain relatively modest amounts of text (e.g., a single Gospel).  So the Christian preference for the codex was not based on its putative capacity to contain larger bodies of text.

In yet another passage we seem to have a related confusion.  Rohmann points to two “dominant cultural trends of Late Antiquity . . . the emergence of Christianity as the state religion and the transcription of ancient texts from papyrus to parchment, a process that can be linked to Christianisation” (pp. 15-16).  Yet again, he either misunderstands or mis-states the phenomenon in question.  The process that may be linked to “Christianisation” in the 4th century AD and thereafter is the transition from the bookroll to the codex, not a change in writing material.  Granted, it so happens that in the same period parchment was becoming the more frequently used writing material, but this had nothing demonstrable to do with Christianity.  For Christians had been happily using papyrus for centuries!   What Christians preferred, especially for the texts that they treated as scripture, was the codex bookform.[2]

As I say, I hope/trust that Rohmann’s discussion of attitudes and actions toward pagan literature in Late Antiquity is more accurate and sound.  You can’t be an expert in everything, as I know well.  But it is unfortunate that these errors about early bookforms and writing material mar this otherwise impressive study.

[1] The master-study of the ancient literary bookroll is William A. Johnson, Bookrolls and Scribes in Oxyrhynchus (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2004).  For a summary treatment, William A. Johnson, “The Ancient Book,” in The Oxford Handbook of Papyrology, ed. Roger S. Bagnall (New York: Oxford University Press, 2009), 256-81.

[2] See my discussion of the matter in Larry W. Hurtado, The Earliest Christian Artifacts:  Manuscripts and Christian Origins (Eerdmans, 2006), 43-93.

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