Dead See Scrolls

Despite her ability to overlook my obvious deficiencies, my wife has good eyesight. Last week she spotted an article carried by the Associated Press entitled “Dispute over ancient scrolls changes modern law.” Although many ancient documents (notably those from Ugarit) outweigh the importance of the Dead Sea Scrolls for understanding the religion of ancient Israel, the Scrolls have continued to be headliners. There never seems to be some sort of scandal very far from the Scrolls, and this article by Jennifer Pletz reaffirms that assessment. The name of Norman Golb is familiar to just about any Hebrew Bible scholar. His work on the Scrolls is highly regarded. The story, however, brings the scandal down a generation to Golb’s son Raphael, a lawyer and literature scholar. In a case whose details rival the minutiae of the Scrolls themselves, the younger Golb is accused of sending emails putatively said to have been sent from his father’s rivals confessing plagiarism. To what point, beyond alleged family honor, one hesitates to speculate.


“Sculduggery,” J. C. L. Gibson once said, “is always just around the corner in archaeological circles.” The same might be said to apply to the Scrolls. Episode after episode of scholars behaving badly have attended the controversial documents since their accidental discovery on the eve of Israel becoming a state. Ironically, the Scrolls in some symbolic ways represent the struggles of the Israelis. No one doubts their importance, but access has always been an issue. Careers were made and secured by the Scrolls, reaching to the highest academic offices in the land. And yet, we can learn more by turning back the pages of history just a little further.

The Scrolls date from that troubled time period when Christianity was just beginning to emerge from Judaism. Tempers flare at implications masked or insinuated. As if the Scrolls were really the much sought philosopher’s stone. The original generation of Scroll readers is going the way of all nature. Those associated with the more solid tablets of Ugarit have long passed that way already. And yet we still have Bible museums being built and implications left dangling. Law suits are filed and ownership of the Scrolls is disputed. In the twenty-first century scholars are still willing to risk it all on some parchment fragments that have the appeal of the esoteric. Hidden truths, almost apocalyptic, squirreled away in desert caves. Knowledge is indeed money, unless, of course, you actually know how to read the Scrolls for yourself.

Vive la compagnie

I’m cleaning out the closet at work. I doubt that either J. C. L. Gibson or Nicolas Wyatt envisioned my future thus. Edinburgh University was exotic and optimistic, designed to make my curriculum vitae stand out. More like standing out in the rain. “We have to ask what’s best for the company,” I’m told. I’m not a proud person, but earning a Ph.D. to take out the trash seems like a strange allocation of resources to me. “Take one for the team,” we’re told, since we’re part of a company and when the company prospers, we prosper. On a pro-rated scale, of course. It’s not that taking out the trash is beneath me. I willingly do it at home; my first career aspiration was to be a janitor. Only now I’m dressed in work clothes for the City. And I spent nine years in higher education to get here.

Lately I’ve been pondering how this “for the company” trope is a one-way street. Knowing in advance that Nashotah House could be a Hindenburg career for a liberal, I gave it the old college try. Writing about 90 pages of class notes a week for my first year of teaching, attending mandatory chapel twice a day, I tried not to step on any toes. Even though the theology over which I was forced to chew smelled a bit like this garbage I am now carrying, I made no fuss. Don’t rock the boat, especially if it’s a garbage scow. Take one for the team. After fourteen years of not making a fuss, I was summarily dismissed. I found out, literally, how hard it is to get a job as a garbage man.

Portrait of a livelihood about to end.

Portrait of a livelihood about to end.

Eventually I landed a job at Gorgias Press. Neither prestigious nor lucrative, it was a job and I had already proven I could take one for the team. Positions evaporate around here like dribbles from a spilled cup of coffee. So I found myself at Routledge, jetting around the country, spending long hours on the bus, being told to think what was best for the company. Only don’t expect the company to do the same for you. Stoking egos, I tried to get people with qualifications I could match to write a book for me. At Nashotah House I played on the football team (don’t laugh, it’s true). We had only one game a year, against our rival—the now defunct Seabury-Western in Chicago. During practice one day, one of my students blocked me with a forearm to the chin that left me on my back, seeing stars. I can take one for the team. But sometimes the company needs someone to take out the garbage. Ask the guy with a doctorate in rubbish removal. He always thinks about the company.

Instruction, through Film

In an increasingly technological world, the acquisition of knowledge often seems like a moving target. For thousands of years the process of research meant lifting yourself out of the chair, or couch, or log, and going to where the written collection of human knowledge resided—the library. Assurbanipal, emperor of Assyria, assembled a great library in antiquity, as did the sages of Alexandria, Egypt. From those days until my own lifetime, if you wanted to learn something you went to where the books resided. The birth of the Internet has changed knowledge storage considerably, but not completely. You might find bits of Assurbanipal’s Akkadian wisdom online (Alexandria’s, unfortunately, didn’t survive antiquity), next to thousands of e-books, blogs, and tweets. And of course, videos. Although many of my blog posts refer to horror movies, one of my favorite sources of information has always been the documentary. Despite the fact that it’s spoon-fed knowledge, there’s nothing quite like watching the experts tell you what you need to know on this or that topic.

Assurbanipal, lion hunter, emperor, librarian.

I was, naturally, pleased to learn of The folks from the site were kind enough to contact me since they offer many religion documentaries for free. I suspect that most readers of this blog have some interest in religion since I seldom write about anything else. currently has over thirty professionally made documentaries from various producers (including the History channel) available for viewing. Just sit back, click, and learn. I added to my own knowledge-base yesterday. This is particularly nice for those of us who can’t really afford the constantly increasing expense of buying access to television service. If your interests are greater than religion, they have many other categories of documentaries available as well. There are much worse ways to spend an afternoon.

One of the questions that arises in my conversations these days is whether all of the material online is changing knowledge itself. There’s no question that it’s a time saver. Prof. J. C. L. Gibson once remarked, while looking for a passage in class at Edinburgh, “So much of scholarship is turning pages.” He was a man who still did not use a typewriter, up to the day of his death. There is something to the old form of knowledge that stays with me as I watch the world inexorably change around me. There was a thrill to finding a book from 1516 on the open shelves at the New College library of Edinburgh University, to touching its centuries-old pages and marveling. Sitting in John Gibson’s office as he puffed on his pipe and trying to defend my new ideas against his old ones, I felt that knowledge was being hammered into me. There is an arcane knowledge to starting every day with a wee dram and a prayer that the World Wide Web just hasn’t managed to capture yet.

Oh, Eye

As a frequent user of, I note the daily blog-post headlines as I look up my various words throughout the day. Yesterday’s article promised to be a good fit into this blog as well: “Why are zero and the letter ‘O’ both circles? The answer involves both science and mysticism.” The title is a bit wordy, but this is a dictionary site, after all. Each semester I briefly encapsulate the history of writing for my students. Since the Bible is a written document, it stands to reason that its origins reside within the sphere of writing. Many letters of our alphabet are pictographic in origin. Often as the initial letters of a word beginning with their sound, our letter-forms are mostly borrowed from the Greeks, who, in turn, borrowed most of them from the Phoenicians. The pictographic origins of all current ciphers in the alphabet are not known, but some have stories behind them. O is one such letter. As the article explains, O derives from the Semitic letter Ayin, a consonant that has no regular English equivalent. My late doctoral advisor at Edinburgh, Professor J. C. L. Gibson, delighted in saying it was the sound a camel made when overloaded. I have never forgotten how he rolled his eyes and stuck out his tongue while trying to replicate it. The shape seems to derive from ayin’s original meaning of “eye.”

The zero is more metaphysical. As the article at states, its premiere was attended by philosophical and religious arguments. The concept of nothingness still disturbs many people, and its early history was filled with debates about the divine implications of nothing. (Some things never change.) How could such an abstraction fit into a divinely planned and ordained world? Does it not imply that God left a few cracks in the joinery? Debate as they might, eventually the utility of zero was forced upon human thinkers. Its shape, apparently, derived from either the sun or the moon, but not the eye.

In ancient Egypt, however, possibly where the round ayin shape originated, the sun and moon were sometimes equated with the eyes of Horus. Horus is a benevolent god, overseeing the fortunes of the king, and thereby the nation. His wounded eye, damaged in his combat with Seth, has the power to heal as it cycles through its stages as the moon. His solar eye, necessary for life, can be harsh and unblinking. Today O is the fourth most used letter in our alphabet. It has its origins among the powers attributed to eyes in the ancient world. Perhaps if we learn the art of truly seeing, along with Horus, we might discover how to bring peace to those who gave us the gift of writing.

Somebody's eyes

Into the Great Beyond

It is a sobering moment when one of your advisors shuffles off the mortal coil. Just a year after my master’s degree, Harrell Beck, my program advisor passed away amid a flurry of unusual happenings. Just a few years back, Simon Parker, his colleague and an Ugaritologist who befriended me, also slipped into the netherworld. I just received the obituary of John C. L. Gibson, my doctoral advisor from Edinburgh, reminding me that my obvious concerns with death and religion in this blog have a very practical application. We all have to face it sometime, and hopefully our legacy will be a good one.

Professor Gibson was best known for his revision of outdated but valuable reference materials. His work as a Semitic linguist was highly regarded, but he didn’t wander too far from convention. As a clergyman in the Scottish Kirk, he had natural constraints. He also had a clever way of turning a phrase. Late in my time at Edinburgh University, I started to keep a list of his aphorisms. If I’d started earlier I might have some more nuggets to lay out here, but I thought it a fitting tribute to a fine gentleman scholar who always took a dram with his breakfast to pass along a few of his choice quotes in this post. You’ll have to do your best to imagine the Scottish burr —

“Don’t lead with your chin” (this was in the context of taking on academic debate).

“Skullduggery is just around the corner in archaeology.”

“Archaeologists and epigraphers shoot each other on sight” (this was in reference to Ebla).

“In Job the daring word is often the right one.”

“If you want to stand against him, do so. But get your armor on first!” (This remark came after I challenged a time-honored thesis by the late James Barr, while he was still early.)

“Every word in Arabic refers to a part of a camel as well as something else.”

“Inscriptions like Ajrud, they’re a nuisance; they shouldn’t be there.” (Kuntillet Ajrud is the site of one of the famous “Yahweh and his Asherah” inscriptions.)

“Who is Asherah and what is she doing here with Yahweh?” (In the same conversation as the previous comment.)

“Turning pages is a major activity of scholarship.”

There were, of course, many more. Professor Gibson will always remain a large part of my Edinburgh experience. Sitting in his pipe-smoke during one of my sessions, I noticed he had no computer. “Ach, aye, they offered me one, but I wouldna used it,” he explained. He didn’t even own a typewriter. In my mind, his passing is like the passing of old school scholarship itself.

J. C. L. Gibson, a cipher, and Nicolas Wyatt

J. C. L. Gibson, a cipher, and Nicolas Wyatt