Simcha Jacobovici sees Jesus where there is no Jesus (again): This time in the Dead Sea Scrolls

jesus-toastIn his blog for The Times of Israel of March 25, 2016, journalist Simcha Jacobovici claims to have made a significant “discovery”. Jacobovici claims to have upset the current scholarly consensus that the community responsible for the Dead Sea scrolls was unconnected with the early followers of Jesus:

Now, I’ve made a discovery that may change all this. Put simply, I believe that one of the fragments called by scholars by the very unappealing name of “4Q541” explicitly refers to Jesus.

Jacobovici claims that the text in question, fragment 24 of 4Q541 (or “4QApocryphon of Levi”), mentions several items connected with Jesus: a “dove” (יונא), “crucifixion” (ותליא), a “nail” (וצצא), and the words “do not mourn for him” (אל תתאבל בה).

Jacobovici’s blog post goes on to claim that scholars have avoided what he has “discovered”. Jacobovici claims that Florentino García Martínez “must have been nervous about the original reference to ‘the nail’ [in Martínez’s earlier translation] and changed his translation”. In the Dead Sea Scrolls Study Edition, Martínez (with Eibert Tigchelar) translates וצצא as “night-hawk” rather than “nail”, and omits any translation of ותליא. Jacobovici infers that scholars are avoiding finding Jesus in the Dead Sea scrolls: “Were scholars worried about finding Jesus in any ancient texts other than the New Testament?” Jacobovici examined 4Q541 to check that the word ותליא is there, and acknowledges that the ת is fragmentary and less than fully certain. But he believes that it is ת, so comments, “So now I became really suspicious.” When he checks the translation with Dead Sea scrolls translator Émile Puech, Jacobovici concludes that, in omitting the translation “dove”, “Puech purposely fudged the translation so that the reference to Jesus would be lost”.

There are several things wrong with Jacobovici’s article, in addition to its conspiracy-theorist tone.

First, Jacobovici’s claim that “now, I’ve made a discovery that may change all this” makes it sound as if he is the first to discover possible references to a crucifixion and related motifs in 4Q541. He is not. In fact, Émile Puech, with whom Jacobovici spoke, had proposed such a meaning in the official publication of the text, fifteen years ago, in 2001. Not only that, but Puech’s interpretation of the text has been largely followed by George Brooke, in his comparison of the Dead Sea scrolls and New Testament (Fortress Press, 2005). This is by no means, contrary to Jacobovici’s sensationalism, a “discovery”.

Second, Jacobovici is simply flat-out incorrect that 4Q541 “explicitly refers to Jesus”. For there to be an “explicit” reference, the reference must be, er, just that: explicit. Yet there is no mention of the name Jesus/Yeshu(a) in 4Q541. It doesn’t appear explicitly. Therefore, it is wrong to claim that there is an explicit reference to Jesus in the text.

Third, there is a very good reason for the hesitation of many scholars to translate the text with the words “crucifixion”, “nail”, or even “dove”. 4Q541 is a fragmentary text, and its meaning – as a result – is unavoidably uncertain. It is normally the case, in any reconstruction of fragmentary Dead Sea scrolls, that different scholars come up with quite different meanings. Nothing is unusual here, let alone worthy of conspiracy-theory sensationalism. In particular: the ו and ת in ותליא are unclear, which makes the translation “crucifixion”/”suspension” uncertain. In addition, the term צצא is rare, so we can’t be at all sure that the text refers to a “nail”. On top of all this, there are gaps in the fragment which make the context and meaning difficult to determine. This is not an instance of scholarly bias, despite Jacobovici’s attempt to portray it that way. It is, rather, an example of appropriate scholarly caution. We have a fragmentary text and we are uncertain about its meaning and significance.

Fourth: the text predates Jesus by a century or more. Let’s assume that the text does mention crucifixion and nails, mourning, and a dove. Would we then be compelled to conclude that it must refer to Jesus? Not at all. Palaeographical (handwriting) analysis of 4Q541 indicates that the text dates to the end of the second century BCE or about 100 BCE. Its style of handwriting matches that of other texts from this period (eg. 1QS, 1QIsaa, and 4Q175). Although Jacobovici does not mention it in his blog post, Puech himself dated the text some 100-150 years before Jesus. The obvious conclusion is that 4Q541 cannot refer to Jesus.

Simcha Jacobovici has a history of seeing Jesuses where there are no Jesuses. A few years ago, he made the claim, since comprehensively disproved, that a portrait of a vase in a Jerusalem tomb was “a Jonah fish”, an early Christian symbol. As Mark Goodacre summarized, “He’s seeing things that simply aren’t there.” And so it continues, in the next, sensationalist Simcha TV show.

The Nephilim are on TV: Shadowhunters

I just watched the first episode of the new television series Shadowhunters and it’s quite watchable – even exciting. Some good casting, also, has the potential to make this adaptation of Cassandra Clare’s Mortal Instruments novel series a success. Probably even better than the film.

Katherine "Kat" McNamara plays Clary Fray
Katherine “Kat” McNamara plays Clary Fray

The shadowhunters are demon-fighting angelic-human hybrids (as a result of partaking of the Mortal Cup, given sometime in the Middle Ages by the Angel Raziel to Jonathan Shadowhunter, the first of the Nephilim).


As human-angel hybrids, the shadowhunters are loosely based on the angelic interpretation of Genesis 6:4, which describes the “sons of God” having sex with the “daughters of men”. Genesis 6:4 calls the offspring of this union … the “Nephilim”, a breed of heroes of ancient renown.

Now that Nephilim are on TV every week, the mission of Remnant of Giants is complete. Let the reader understand.

Why Schama’s History of the Jews is not History: On Jewish Origins in Episode 1

British historian Simon Schama is currently presenting a series called The Story of the Jews, on BBC2. In episode 1, Schama begins with the stories told in the Bible. He notes that, while there is no archaeological evidence for the Exodus or desert wandering that would make them count as historical reality, the first ‘solid evidence’ of Jewish identity can be found near the Valley of Elah:

To find some of the first solid archaeological evidence for the Jewish story, you have to fast-forward a couple of centuries from the traditional date for the Moses epic, and come here, to the Valley of Elah, in present-day Israel. According to the Bible, this is where a giant, called Goliath, was brought low by a shepherd boy called David, armed only with a slingshot.

Schama then goes on to make the claim that Yosef Garfinkel, excavator at Khirbet Qeiyafa, has established that the Elah Fortress (ca 1000 BCE) belonged to the people of the Judean highlands, “not to the pig-eating Philistines of the coastal plain”. The reason is that no pig-bones can be found in the highland fortress at Elah – and the proscription against eating pork is, of course, a distinctive ethnic marker of later Jews.

The big problem with this claim is that the lack of pigs is a feature of highland areas in general – not just of the Judean highlands. Pigs need a lot of watering, which in the Iron Age necessitated a location near the coast. This is the case both within so-called Jewish territory, and for any Philistines who did not live on the coast, such as the Philistines of the northern Negev. On this issue, see the 1997 article by Brian Hesse and Paula Wapnish, “Can Pig Remains Be Used for Ethnic Diagnosis in the Ancient Near East?” and Aharon Sasson’s book, Animal Husbandry in Ancient Israel: A Zooarchaeological Perspective on Livestock Exploitation, Herd Management and Economic Strategies, Equinox, 2011. As previously noted on this blog, the same point is noted by the archaeologist at Tel es-Safi (identified with biblical Gath, hometown of the legendary Goliath), Aren Maeir:

… extremely high pig frequencies (c. 20 per cent or more) are found in [Philistine] sites in the Israeli coastal plain (Ashkelon, Tel Miqne-Ekron)…. At Tel es-Safi/Gath, located on the interface between the coastal plain and the hill country, pigs comprise 13 per cent of the Iron I fauna …, while Tel Batash, located in a similar setting, has yielded only 8 per cent pigs; at southern Philistine sites, the Nahal Patish temple … and the small village of Qubur el-Walaydah in the northern Negev …. pigs represent less than 1 per cent of the faunal assemblage, a similar low frequency to that observed in coeval Israelite sites…. Thus, it is very feasible that ecological, economic or functional factors, or a mixture of them, rather than ethnicity, were responsible for the relatively high frequencies of pigs in some Philistine sites and their dearth in others – Philistine and Israelite settlements alike

– Aren M. Maeir, Louise A. Hitchcock, and Liora Kolska Horwitz, “On the Constitution and Transformation of Philistine Identity”Oxford Journal of Archaeology 32 no. 1 (2013): 5–6 (emphasis added).

In the BBC documentary, Schama also lets Yosef Garfinkel repeat his claim that the story of a battle between the Philistine Goliath and the Judean David preserves a kernel of historical truth: that the Elah fortress was a site of conflict between coastal Philistines and highland Judeans. However, the story of David and Goliath in 1 Samuel 17, as Israel Finkelstein points out, bears many more marks of much later ideological concerns:

The story of David and Goliath is a complex one. There could have been an ancient memory on conflicts between Judah and Philistine Gath in this region and the story of the slaying of Goliath by a hero named David or Elhanan (2 Sam. 21:19) may be related to this ancient tradition. But the text in 1 Samuel 17 is Deuteronomistic in its language, and it seems to depict Homeric influence. It is clear therefore that the story could not have been put in writing before the late 7th century BCE. More than anything else the story portrays the theological goals of the authors and the historical reality of the time of the authors – centuries after the high days of Khirbet Qeiyafa.

– Israel Finkelstein, “A Great United Monarchy? Archaeological and Historical Perspectives.” Pages 3-28 in R.G. Kratz and H. Spieckermann, eds., One God – One Cult – One Nation: Archaeological and Biblical Perspectives (Berlin, 2010), pp. 18-19.

So in The Story of the Jews, Schama recycles some less-than-critical arguments that the beginnings of Jewish identity can be demonstrated 3000 years ago, a time associated with the legendary King David. In truth, the origin of a distinctive Jewish identity is not clear before the Persian period (sixth-fourth centuries BCE), in the province of Yehud. More than that, Schama’s assumption seems to be that the biblical dating of the exodus and conquest – 1000 years earlier than the Persian Period – is essentially correct:

You don’t have to accept the Bible as literal truth to believe that 3,500 years ago something extraordinary and fateful in world history did happen, over there, on the other side of the Jordan Valley.

The biblical stories of such early origins for ‘Israel’ and ‘Israelites’ (not yet Judea and Jews) are founding myths dating from the Persian period. While they are still important for Jewish self-identity today, they are not historical events; they constitute a part of Jewish cultural memory but they do not belong to reality. The Story of the Jews tells a good story, but it is not, in this regard, good history.

See also: Mark Goodacre, “Simon Schama’s Misreading of Paul“, NT Blog, 10 September 2013

Tim Bulkeley responds to Francesca Stavrakopoulou on Asherah, God’s Wife

Tim Bulkeley (5-Minute Bible) has been responding, in a series of podcasts, to an article written by Francesca Stavrakopoulou way back in March 2011. The article in question was published in the Daily Mail, and is entitled, “Why the BBC’s new face of religion believes God had a WIFE”. In it, Stavrakopoulou introduces the ancient Israelite belief in many gods (polytheism) and their belief that Yahweh had a divine consort, the goddess Asherah – subjects that she looks at in more detail in the BBC series, Bible’s Buried Secrets, in particular in episode 2.

Tim’s second podcast takes issue especially with Stavrakopoulou’s musing, at the conclusion of her Daily Mail article, “I can’t help but wonder what the world would be like had the goddess remained”.

Tim attempts to answer this question by pointing out some of the sometimes violent actions of goddesses in the ancient Near East, on the assumption that the literary remains of such cultures can be compared with what we have in the Bible. Now there is some degree of justification for such a comparison: just because a divine being is conceived as a female does not mean that she should be stereotyped as “motherly” or “loving” etc, just as a male divinity should not be stereotyped as “warlike” or “vengeful”. With a goddess such as Anat, the reverse can certainly be the case.

But Tim’s answer misses the mark somewhat. From the content of Stavrakopoulou’s article and episode 2, it is clear that the purpose of her question is to ask whether later Judaism and Christianity would have been quite so patriarchical and androcentric if the monotheistic God had instead been a divine couple. It is certainly a highly hypothetical question, but you can hardly answer it by adducing evidence of the actions of goddesses in Ugaritic legends written almost a millennium before the Bible was written!

Or, if you do make these older legends your comparison, you might want to take notice of similar unethical and violent actions earlier attributed to Yahweh, such as his ordering of Israelites to sacrifice firstborn children to him (on which, see Francesca Stavrakopoulou, King Manasseh and Child Sacrifice: Biblical Distortions of Historical Realities, BZAW 338 [Berlin: Walter de Gruyter, 2004]).

Rather, the point of Stavrakopoulou’s question concerns how monotheism was received in later Judaism and Christianity, how the monotheistic God became identified with the male half of what was earlier a divine couple. To make her question more concrete, we might begin with Paul of Tarsus’s interpretation of “the image of God” of Genesis 1, in which he applies the divine image primarily to males. Females only have an indirect image of God, in reflecting males, and this distinction serves to justify Paul’s gender hierarchies. Now, there are plenty of recent apologetic attempts to explain away Paul’s patriarchical beliefs. But I can’t help but wonder what Paul would be like had the goddess remained.

Tim Bulkeley, “Was God married? Part two: the death of the goddess
Tim Bulkeley, “Why do you read? Or: Was God married?

Update: Tim replies with some comments on episode 2 of Bible’s Buried Secrets, “Did God Have a Wife?”

The David and Goliath Segment of The History Channel’s The Bible

The people of the United States have some unusual practices. Their local sports competitions are called “world” series, their military invasions are termed “defence”, and their dramas about the Bible appear on the “History” Channel.

The History Channel is currently screening a mini-series in the United States called The Bible. By that term they, of course, mean the Protestant Christian Bible. And the mini-series zooms over the narratives in the books of Genesis to Revelation at lightning speed.

Episode 2, which screened last Sunday, includes a segment on David and Goliath. It’s about as cliched as anything you’d see in a Cecil B. DeMille:

The series has used biblical scholars and Christian spokespersons as advisors, and for the David and Goliath scene, Jim Wallis and Geoff Tunnicliffe offered advice. Here are a couple of videos in which they offer their less-than-critical comments:

“Here is the classic story of the giant and the shepherd. Big and small; powerful and weak. And it turns the tables on history, because the big and strong and powerful always win and those small and weak always lose. Not in David and Goliath.”
– Jim Wallis, blurring a fictional story about a boy defeating a giant with history

“One of the most famous stories in the Bible is the story of David and Goliath. Here we have a story of the Israelis facing off with the Philistines.”
– Geoff Tunnicliffe – because there’s no difference between Israelis and Israelites, eh

See also:
Wil Gafney, “Black Samson & White Women on the History Channel”
Peter Enns, “The Bible” on the History Channel: Not the Absolute Train Wreck I Thought it Would Be”
Tom Verenna, “‘The Bible’ Series and the History Channel”
Mark Goodacre, “The Bible Series: The Consultants’ Role”
Dusty Smith, “History Channel’s “The Bible” – In Under 10 Minutes – Parts 1 & 2″