Fabulous Coverage of our Mt Zion Dig!

I will be posting information on our 2016 Mt Zion dig season this weekend–yes the months are passing and it is almost that time. Here is some fabulous coverage in the latest issue of the UNC Charlotte magazine linked here. You can click on the images below but they are only screenshots. For a higher resolution follow the link and click to pp. 14-17 for the whole spread full-screen.

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Israeli Court Finds Joe Zias Guilty of Libel

Additional news coverage: The Times of Israel

From Simcha Jacobovici’s blog this morning, breaking news from Israel…

Lod District Court (Lod, Israel) – After 4 years in court, Judge Jacob Sheinman handed down a landmark decision today in my libel suit filed against former Israel Antiquities Authority (IAA) curator Joseph Zias.

I’m used to criticisms. As a journalist, I’m committed to the principle of free debate in a democratic society. But free speech ends where libel begins, and Zias crossed every red line of a civilized debate. He accused me, among other things, of “forgery”, “planting archaeology”, “pimping the Bible” and “inventing Holocaust stories”. He also accused me of being in intimate contact with various criminal elements around the world. All these are horrible, made up lies that he circulated on the Internet and sent to various universities, publishers and broadcasters. Incredibly, he found some people to support him, especially those with a theological axe to grind.

After I sued him, Zias and some of his supporters claimed that my lawsuit was an attempt to stifle free speech and academic criticism – as if libel and lies are a legitimate part of academic discourse. I only called 4 witnesses to make my case. For his part, Zias argued that he had spoken the truth and called 25 witnesses in his defense. But the strategy backfired as most of his witnesses testified against his position!

Today, the judge threw the book at Zias. He quoted Israeli law stating that freedom of speech has to be balanced with protecting a man’s “good name”. He found that Zias did not prove a single allegation. By the end of his 38 page ruling, the judge found Zias guilty on 10 counts of libel – 6 of them “pre-meditated libel with an intention to cause harm”. To underline the seriousness of Zias’ wrongdoings, the judge fined him a total of 800,000 NIS.

I waited a long time for this moment. Justice has been served and a clear message has been sent to those who use bullying and defamation as a tactic to silence free debate.

Over the past four years I have constantly heard colleagues incorrectly characterizing the Zias lawsuit as a “freedom of speech,” issue, as if Simcha Jacobovici filed his complaint to stifle legitimate criticism and debate on his work. Joe is desperate to cast things that way so he can appear the victim rather than the perpetrator–of slander and defamation–which he most surely is.  If you are interested in the facts, here they are. I know only too well what is at stake here because I have been the victim of Joe’s slander myself, having been a close friend of his for over 20 years. The only difference is Simcha Jacobovici decided to sue Joe whereas I have chosen to ignore Joe’s ugly behavior as much as possible while providing those interested in the facts of the case as I know them.

Zias & Tabor at Qumran

Scholars in my field of ancient Judaism and early Christianity often sharply disagree on issues. Pointed critiques and exchanges are common and welcome, so long as they remain respectful. This has been the case with the academic discussion of the Talpiot tombs in Jerusalem and their possible relationship to Jesus of Nazareth and his family over the past few years.  You can find a representative archive of strongly differing articles atBible & Interpretation here.

Jodi Magness and I laid out the parameters of the early stages of the debate, pro and con, on the Society of Biblical Literature web site here and here. Near Eastern Archaeologypublished a forum involving me and four other scholars on the topic in late 2006, see here. In March 2012 the ASOR Blog devoted the month of March to an intense academic discussion of the new discoveries in the Talpiot “Patio tomb” resulting from the robotic arm probe, see here.  Most recently Prof. James Charlesworth has published the proceedings of the 2008 Princeton Symposium in Jerusalem, The Tomb of Jesus and his Family with over 30 contributions to the discussion, representing a cross sections of interpretations and viewpoints.

PrincetonTalpiotWhat is happily absent from this intense academic discussion is personal defamation, slander, and libel. Unfortunately that has not been the case with Joe Zias, former Israel Antiquities Authority curator, who has publicly and vocally slandered and defamed me as well as my colleague Rami Arav and filmmaker Simcha Jacobovici, in connection with our exploration of the Talpiot tombs. Many of my colleagues have cheered Zias on, mistakenly thinking that he is merely expressing his views and disagreeing with us on the interpretation of evidence.

The truth is Zias has moved way beyond respectful academic critique into defamation, libel, and personal slander. I know this firsthand because I have copies of e-mail and letters he has written to my Dean, Provost, Chancellor, literary agent, and publisher–Simon & Schuster, as well as dozens of colleagues, charging me with “conduct bordering on the criminal,” “planting of evidence,” and calling for my dismissal for academic misconduct. In fact, in those e-mails he even charges that we “faked” the Jonah ossuary image and entered the tomb clandestinely, planting it for later filming and “discovery.” Zias urges Simon & Schuster not to publish our book, The Jesus Discovery, charging that our work is based on fraudulent claims. More recently he has expanded his critique to the commendable work Gene Gallagher and I did on Waco–which was even praised by the FBI–charging that my defense of “cult leaders” before congress gave support to the Oklahoma City bombing. Early on I wrote him a couple of e-mails and urged him to drop the personal attacks and participate in the academic discussion, inviting his critique of any aspect of our archaeological exploration of the “Patio tomb” or our interpretations of these tombs. He replied that my career was ruined, that UNC Charlotte had shown itself to be an institution with no academic standards, and that none of my students would ever find jobs or achieve any respect in our field–even though our program in Religious Studies at UNC Charlotte is one of the finest in the country.

So far as I know, even though Joe Zias is surely the most vocal critic of our work on the Talpiot tombs, he has yet to publish a single scholarly article setting forth his own counter arguments or positions. What he has done is constantly post personal attacks in “Comment” sections of media and blog pieces against me, Rami Arav, Simcha Jacobovici, and those he loosely calls “The BAR Crowd,” (which apparently includes editor Hershel Shanks and anyone who is associated with Biblical Archaeology Review).

What is particularly ironic in all this is that Zias, back in 1996, was the first one to speak in favor of the possibility that the Talpiot “Jesus” tomb belonged to Jesus and a likely wife, expressing his amazement at the uniqueness of the “cluster of names” to a BBC film crew.

I care about Joe and his family on a human level and have always treated him with kindness and respect, despite his abuse and slander against me.  I take no joy in his personal pain, though I am pleased that justice has prevailed in this case. The lawsuit was never about Zias’s right to strongly express his disagreement with the theses of Simcha’s films on the Talpiot tombs or the books he had co-authored. It was specific in charging Zias with personal libel, slander, and defamation. Zias had a defense fund set up and various colleagues who have negative views of Simcha’s work have mistakenly taken the issue to be that of Zias’s right to the academic freedom of dissent. Joe has charged that “big money” interests have conspired to keep him from speaking out, punishing him for simply expressing his criticisms. Such is simply not the case, as hundreds of my colleagues who have gotten Joe’s defamatory e-mails can testify.

A New Beginning of a New Life

Today I begin the first day of what I am calling my New Life. I officially stepped down as Chair of our Dept. of Religious Studies at UNC Charlotte after 10 years on July 1st, but then there was the Mt Zion dig, the Society of Biblical Literature Conference in Vienna, and last week lots of lose ends to tie up back on campus with the Chair transition, including my last official meeting with the Dean as outgoing Chair. So today marks a new week and a new beginning of a New Life. I return to the honored and privileged status of a Professor of Religious Studies, which means a Teacher first and foremost, a Researcher, and a public Servant. I have also just gained 40+ hours a week of unscheduled time that used to be given to Administrative Duties. Hurray! I am celebrating this day!

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If you have any comments you can leave them on my Facebook page here or via Twitter @jamesdtabor. Thanks to all my readers and I look forward to a much more active Blogging life, among many other things.

 

The Jacobovici v. Zias Lawsuit: Why it Has Nothing to Do with Freedom of Speech

Predictably, as the Zias lawsuit picks up again here in Israel on Wednesday one can expect to hear it characterized by many in the press, as well as colleagues in the field who should know better, as an issue of “freedom of speech,” see the latest inaccurate story here. Joe is desperate to cast things that way so he can appear the victim rather than the perpetrator–of slander and defamation–which he most surely is.  If you are interested in the facts, here they are. I know only too well what is at stake here because I have been the victim of Joe’s slander myself, having been a close friend of his for over 20 years. The only difference is Simcha Jacobovici decided to sue Joe whereas I have chosen to ignore Joe’s ugly behavior as much as possible while providing those interested in the facts of the case as I know them.

Zias & Tabor at Qumran

Zias & Tabor at Qumran

Scholars in my field of ancient Judaism and early Christianity often sharply disagree on issues. Pointed critiques and exchanges are common and welcome, so long as they remain respectful. This has been the case with the academic discussion of the Talpiot tombs in Jerusalem and their possible relationship to Jesus of Nazareth and his family over the past few years.  You can find a representative archive of strongly differing articles at Bible & Interpretation here.

Jodi Magness and I laid out the parameters of the early stages of the debate, pro and con, on the Society of Biblical Literature web site here and here. Near Eastern Archaeology published a forum involving me and four other scholars on the topic in late 2006, see here. In March 2012 the ASOR Blog devoted the month of March to an intense academic discussion of the new discoveries in the Talpiot “Patio tomb” resulting from the robotic arm probe, see here.  Most recently Prof. James Charlesworth has published the proceedings of the 2008 Princeton Symposium in Jerusalem, The Tomb of Jesus and his Family with over 30 contributions to the discussion, representing a cross sections of interpretations and viewpoints.

PrincetonTalpiotWhat is happily absent from this intense academic discussion is personal defamation, slander, and libel. Unfortunately that has not been the case with Joe Zias, former Israel Antiquities Authority curator, who has publicly and vocally slandered and defamed me as well as my colleague Rami Arav and filmmaker Simcha Jacobovici, in connection with our exploration of the Talpiot tombs. Many of my colleagues have cheered Zias on, mistakenly thinking that he is merely expressing his views and disagreeing with us on the interpretation of evidence.

The truth is Zias has moved way beyond respectful academic critique into defamation, libel, and personal slander. I know this firsthand because I have copies of e-mail and letters he has written to my Dean, Provost, Chancellor, literary agent, and publisher–Simon & Schuster, as well as dozens of colleagues, charging me with “conduct bordering on the criminal,” “planting of evidence,” and calling for my dismissal for academic misconduct. In fact, in those e-mails he even charges that we “faked” the Jonah ossuary image and entered the tomb clandestinely, planting it for later filming and “discovery.” Zias urges Simon & Schuster not to publish our book, The Jesus Discovery, charging that our work is based on fraudulent claims. More recently he has expanded his critique to the commendable work Gene Gallagher and I did on Waco–which was even praised by the FBI–charging that my defense of “cult leaders” before congress gave support to the Oklahoma City bombing. Early on I wrote him a couple of e-mails and urged him to drop the personal attacks and participate in the academic discussion, inviting his critique of any aspect of our archaeological exploration of the “Patio tomb” or our interpretations of these tombs. He replied that my career was ruined, that UNC Charlotte had shown itself to be an institution with no academic standards, and that none of my students would ever find jobs or achieve any respect in our field.

So far as I know, even though Joe Zias is surely the most vocal critic of our work on the Talpiot tombs, he has yet to publish a single scholarly article setting forth his own counter arguments or positions. What he has done is constantly post personal attacks in “Comment” sections of media and blog pieces against me, Rami Arav, Simcha Jacobovici, and those he loosely calls “The BAR Crowd,” (which apparently includes editor Hershel Shanks and anyone who is associated with Biblical Archaeology Review). What is particularly ironic in all this is that Zias, back in 1996, was the first one to speak in favor of the possibility that the Talpiot “Jesus” tomb belonged to Jesus and a likely wife, expressing his amazement at the uniqueness of the “cluster of names” to a BBC film crew.

Last year Simcha Jacobovici decided that enough was enough and filed a libel suit against Zias in the Israeli court system, suing him for $1 million in damages. The lawsuit was never about Zias’s right to strongly express his disagreement with the theses of Simcha’s films on the Talpiot tombs or the books he had co-authored. It was specific in charging Zias with personal libel, slander, and defamation. Zias has a defense fund set up and various colleagues who have negative views of Simcha’s work have mistakenly taken the issue to be that of Zias’s right to the academic freedom of dissent. Joe has charged that “big money” interests have conspired to keep him from speaking out, punishing him for simply expressing his criticisms. Such is simply not the case, as many who have gotten his defamatory e-mails about me can testify.

Recently a lengthly analytical piece was published in the Canadian Jewish News that goes a long way toward setting the record straight and clarifying the issues. It shows what one might call a “pattern of defamation” that has become characteristic of Joe Zias–not only against Simcha Jacobovici, but against me and a half dozen other colleagues whose reputations he has slandered. Whether one wants to praise or criticize the views of Simcha Jacobovici, it is surely wrong to support Joe Zias in his methods and tactics involving slander and libel.  Here is the Canadian Jewish News piece in full:

Jacobovici defends his reputation in court

Michael Posner, Special to The CJN, Sunday, February 16, 2014

Documentary filmmaker Simcha Jacobovici shows a life-size replica of one of the ossuaries found in a first-century burial cave located beneath an apartment building in 2012 in Jerusalem. The artifacts, believed to date from the first century, are the subject of his documentary The Resurrection Tomb. [Lior Mizrahi/Flash 90 photo]

 

Canadian Israeli filmmaker Simcha Jacobovici is no stranger to controversy.

Best known as the host of the TV series The Naked Archaeologist, Jacobovici has directed more than a dozen provocative feature documentaries, including Deadly Currents, Hollywoodism and The Exodus Decoded. Almost all of them have broken new ground or challenged conventional wisdom.

The resulting backlash has inured the three-time Emmy Award-winner to criticism. But he wasn’t prepared for the campaign of vilification mounted by retired Israeli curator Joe Zias after the release of Jacobovici’s most recent docs  – The Lost Tomb of Jesus (2007) and The Jesus Discovery/The Resurrection Tomb Mystery (2012).

A Michigan-born anthropologist who made aliyah in the 1960s, Zias, 72, says Jacobovici is exploiting archeology for financial gain or, in his words, “pimping the Bible.” Specifically, in a series of web postings and emails to Jacobovici’s employers, bloggers and journalists, he accused the filmmaker of “planting archeology,” forgery and inventing a Holocaust story. Although many scholars have derided the films as manipulative and sensationalized, only Zias has actually accused him of fraud.

“I don’t mind being criticized,” Jacobovici, 60, said in a recent interview. “People should be free to say what they want. But there’s a difference between free speech and libel. And when you make these kinds of allegations, you cross the line.”

Last year, the filmmaker formally filed a libel suit against Zias in an Israeli court, seeking $1 million in damages. However, given the glacial pace of Israel’s judicial system, it will likely be months before there is a verdict.

Jacobovici is not the first to feel Zias’s wrath. In the past decade or so, he has charged half a dozen senior archeologists, scientists and religious scholars with deceiving the public. For instance, he accused the late Bar-Ilan University historian Hanan Eshel of forging a Dead Sea Scroll fragment, and lobbied for his dismissal. Aren Maeir, former chair of the university’s department of archeology, confirms that Zias urged him to fire Eshel, the author of more than 200 published papers.

Zias declined to be interviewed about Jacobovici’s libel case, but in various online postings, he has attempted to portray himself as the potential victim of censorship.

“In the search for fame and fortune,” he wrote in one posting, “powerful media and personal interests… have encroached upon what once was a honest profession… In an attempt to silence academic critics, a small but financially powerful group… has chosen to react via libel ligation [sic]…an attempt to silence public criticism and freedom of expression, in order to advance their own parochial interests.”

Zias has been most exercised by Jacobovici’s recent documentaries, which focus on two ancient tombs in Talpiot, just south of Jerusalem, both originally discovered in the early 1980s. These, the films boldly suggest, are the likely resting place of Jesus, his extended family and his earliest followers. The first tomb contained ossuaries (bone boxes) inscribed with a constellation of suggestive names. These included Yeshua bar Yehosef (Jesus, son of Joseph); Maria (Latin form of the Hebrew name Miriam); Yose (a diminutive of Joseph, the name of one of Jesus’ brothers found in Mark 6:3); Yehuda bar Yeshua (Judah son of Jesus); and Mariamene e Mara (possibly Mary of Magdelene).

For orthodox Christians, the very idea of a Jesus family tomb is anathema. Jesus could not have had his bones bundled into a box because, according to church doctrine, he was resurrected and ascended to Heaven. Nor do most mainstream Christians accept what the films imply – that Jesus was ever married, to Mary Magdalene or anyone else, or that he fathered children.

Jacobovici believes the second tomb, so far examined only by a camera attached to a tubular probe – Orthodox activists refused the filmmakers permission to enter the cave physically  – contains the first hard evidence of contemporaneous belief in Jesus by his original Jewish followers. The cave, he posits, may have been on the estate of Joseph of Arimathea who, according to the Gospels, was the affluent member of the Sanhedrin who claimed Jesus’ body after the crucifixion.

By pure coincidence, the same family name – Aramati –  appears on a mailbox in the building constructed over the ancient tomb in the early 1980s. Before the trial started, Zias claimed – in letters sent to Jacobovici’s broadcaster National Geographic, his publisher Simon & Schuster, and others – that the filmmaker had pasted the Aramati name on the mailbox to draw the parallel with the biblical disciple of Jesus.

This act, apparently, is what he meant by “planting archeology.” Jacobovici denied the allegation, noting that the Jerusalem phone book showed a family named Arimathea (in Hebrew Aramati) living at the address long before the documentary was shot. Since then, in court depositions, Zias has admitted that there is such a family living in the building.

In court on Feb. 9, Zias brought what he had billed as a star witness to testify – an American matron named Joanna Garrett. A friend of Jacobovici’s longtime collaborator, Prof. James Tabor, tenured chair of the department of religion at the University of North Carolina (UNC), Garrett spent one day with the crew during the shoot.

Later, she swore an affidavit claiming that the filmmaker had doctored the mailbox nameplate so that the Hebrew name “Aramati” would read “Arimathea” in English. This claim became the remaining basis for Zias’s allegation that Jacobovici had “planted archeology.”

On the witness stand, however, Garrett quickly disavowed her affidavit. Admitting that she never saw a doctored nameplate, she claimed that Jacobovici had said he “intended” to doctor the nameplate. She then conceded she had no knowledge of filmmaking.

In his own depositions, Jacobovici said he used CGI without altering the original nameplate to help viewers understand that the modern Hebrew name Aramati is essentially the same as the ancient Biblical name Arimathea. The two men are next due in the Lod courtroom in early April, under the jurisdiction of Judge Jacob Sheinman.

Zias’s depositions have also backed away from his forgery allegation. By forgery, it turns out, he means that the documentaries used CGI to enhance images carved on the ossuaries. If that constitutes forgery, then half the documentary world will have to plead guilty.

Not long after the first Jesus documentary aired, a leading group of 70 scholars assembled in Jerusalem to discuss the issue. As part of the proceedings, they gave a lifetime achievement award to honour the late archeologist Joseph Gat, who was a member of the team that excavated the first tomb in 1981. Accepting on his behalf, his widow disclosed that, while her husband had never publicly discussed the find, he was convinced they had found Jesus of Nazareth’s family tomb. He never talked about it, she claimed, because he thought the news would unleash a wave of anti-Semitism. Gat was a child survivor of the Holocaust and feared a recurrence.

Zias, who worked for the Israel Antiqui­ties Authority for 25 years, until retiring in 1999, had previously claimed that no serious archeologist supported Jacobovici’s thesis. When the widow’s remarks suggested otherwise, Zias contended that Jacobovici had orchestrated the entire scene to promote his cause – arranged for the award to be given and for her to appear, and had written the script she delivered, including the Holocaust reference.

Jacobovici categorically denies the charge. He is himself the son of Holocaust survivors. Born in Israel, he was raised there and in Montreal, and made his home in Toronto from 1980 to 2006, before making aliyah. He now lives with his wife and five children in Ra’anana.

“It’s one thing to claim this and that. It’s another to accuse a child of Holocaust survivors of inventing Holocaust stories and then argue that a sentence from a woman I met once in my life justifies this language,” Jacobovici said.

As it turns out, support for Jacobovici’s tomb thesis did not come only from Gat’s posthumous musings. Although initial academic and religious response was overwhelmingly dismissive, the ground of opinion may be starting to shift.

Late last year, the official proceedings of the Jerusalem conference were published, edited by Princeton’s James Charlesworth, one of the world’s top New Testament thinkers. The results are surprising because, while the naysayers have dominated headlines and blog postings, 12 of the 28 contributors now concede at least the possibility that the tomb is indeed that of Jesus’ family.

In addition to his charges against Jacobovici and Eshel, Zias has also accused Prof. Richard ­Freund, head of Judaic studies at the University of Hartford, and Canadian geologist Paul Bauman of planting archeology – specifically, of burying a metal casket in a graveyard at Qumran, the ancient Essene encampment on the West Bank.

“We had a film crew there, which tracked [the dig] from the moment we started our work,” Freund said. “I cannot understand why these allegations were ever levelled.” Freund has authored six books on archeology, two on Jewish ethics, more than 100 scholarly articles and appeared in 15 television documentaries.

Bauman, technical director of geophysics in the Calgary office of Worley Parsons, a multinational project management and consulting firm for the resource and energy sectors, said his company works on “gargantuan industrial projects… and top-secret defence sites of multiple nations. Why would I risk all my professional credibility by putting a metal box in a remote cemetery in the desert? I have never received financial compensation for any of the archeology work I’ve participated in outside of North America – [it is] done entirely out of philanthropic intent. I’ve worked with Dr. Freund on at least 15 projects over the last 15 years. The very idea of ‘planting’ a find is inconceivable.”

Then there is Prof. James Tabor, one of the world’s foremost scholars of early Christianity. Zias’s campaign, Tabor says, included “scurrilous letters to my editors at Simon & Schuster, to my agent, to my provost, chancellor and dean, as well as the chair of anthropology, in which he charged that I was guilty of ‘conduct bordering on the criminal’… and that I was interested in only in fame and fortune and was a shame to the profession…Nothing of substance in Joe’s charges was upheld, and he was told so by the [university’s] attorney. He became very strident and threatened to expose our university as not taking responsibility for corruption. He subsequently wrote to UNC officials over the entire state system, making the same charges. ”

Others who have stood in Zias’s line of fire include Rami Arav, professor of archeology at the University of Nebraska, and Magen Broshi, former curator of the Dead Sea Scrolls.

Asked for comment, Zias – in an email exchange – said only that “none of the above have [sic] any respect among colleagues. They are mocked by all.” Later, he added, “Change no respect to little respect.”

Zias also played a central role in spurring the Israel Antiquity Authority to charge collector Oded Golan with forgery in connection with the so-called James ossuary. The IAA spent almost a decade trying to prove that Golan forged the latter part of the box’s inscription, “James, son of Joseph, brother of Jesus.” Among the key witnesses for the prosecution, Zias claimed to have remembered seeing only the first part of the inscription in an Arab-owned Jerusalem antiquities shop.

But as Time magazine later reported, Zias’s testimony fell apart on the witness stand when he confessed that “he could not actually read the Aramaic inscription and that his Hebrew wasn’t good enough to read his own name ‘Joseph’ on the box.” Golan was declared innocent last year, although the IAA continues to insist the inscription has been forged.

North Carolina’s Tabor says he, too, considered suing Zias for libel. “There’s a trail of evidence that is irrefutable, but I’ve chosen to try to counter him in other ways. But Joe has vowed to try to destroy Simcha and boasted that he has done him great damage. I am a tenured professor, whereas Simcha has his own company and its reputation, plus the livelihood of his associates, to consider.”

http://www.cjnews.com/node/122185

 

Bashers of the Noah Film Should Re-Read Their Bibles

Spoiler Alert: This review of the Darren Aronofsky film “Noah” reveals plot details and analysis you may not want to know beforehand if you plan on seeing the film.

Darren Aronofsky’s new $100m blockbuster film “Noah” opened on Friday in 3936 theaters to a huge wave of media attention. Google News lists over 1400 stories on the film this morning and IMDB lists 2217 articles–many of them evaluating its merits or assessing the public reaction. Mainstream reviews are mostly solidly positive (Rotten Tomatoes 73, Metacritic 68) but the film is being blasted, damned, and condemned in many conservative Christian circles. So far it has been banned in Indonesia, the largest Muslim country, as well as Qatar, Bahrain, and the UAE–but here in the U.S. those objecting most strongly to the film are Christians who find its portrayal of the Noah story “unfaithful” to the Bible.

noah-film-700x464Ken Ham, the self-styled “Creationist” of recent fame for his disastrous debate with Bill Nye on “Evolution,” tells TIME magazine that the film is an insult to Christians, with “barely a hint of biblical fidelity,” and thus “unbiblical” and “pagan.” Glenn Beck, labels the film a “100 million dollar disaster,” objecting, among other things, that it is “pro-animal” and “anti-human.” Erick Erikson, on his “Redstate” blog, concludes his scorching review with the suggestion that “we might should consider burning at the stake any Christian leader who endorses this movie.” His Tweet was picked up by MSNBC and other TV media last night and has now gone viral. Brian Godawa calls the film “Godawful” in the Christian Post, referring to “the sick twisted agenda that seeps through every frame of this movie.”

None of these Christian critics explain why this ancient story, written by Jews, and part of the Hebrew Bible, should fall under Christian purview or guardianship in terms of its interpretation. But that aside, these two Jewish guys, Aronofsky and his former Harvard roommate and writing partner, Ari Handel, in aiming for what they call the “least biblical” of Bible themed films, have ended up in my view producing a film that profoundly reflects biblical themes that have been lost in most common readings of the Noah story in Genesis 6-9. I find myself in agreement with Christopher Orr’s most perceptive review in The Atlantic,

But despite its flamboyant, and at times goofy, fantasy trappings, Noah is firmly anchored by the fierce moral intensity of Aronofsky’s vision, which is, if anything, more Old Testament than the Old Testament itself.

What I want to do here is to touch on just a few of the most common Christian objections that I reference above.

The Film Never Mentions God
I have heard this objection repeatedly this weekend, particularly on FOX news and Talk Radio outlets, and it is blatantly false and ridiculous. The very word translated “God” in Genesis is not a name but a generic reference that might be translated as “The Powers” (Elohim). One can only imagine the uproar had Aronofsky chosen to call the Creator “The Powers”–which would have been quite biblical. In the Noah film this nameless One is constantly referred to as “the Creator,” but used in a very personal way by all the characters in the film–good and bad. According to Exodus 6:3 God did not make Himself known by His personal name Yahweh (YHVH) or “the LORD” until the time of Moses. The references to God as “the LORD” in Genesis 6-9 in the Flood story are accordingly anachronistic—so it turns out, ironically, that Aronofsky’s designation of God as “the Creator,” is more biblical than his critics have imagined.

The Film is Pro-Animal and Promotes Vegetarianism and Environmentalism
Here I would have to say “guilty as charged”–and thus thoroughly biblical.  What few realize is that according to the Bible humans before the Flood were never given permission to hunt, shed blood, or eat the flesh of living creatures. In Genesis 1:29 God says “I give you every seed-bearing plant that is upon all the earth, and every tree that has seed bearing fruit; they shall be yours for good.” It is only after the flood, that permission to “shed blood” and eat meat is given to humans, though it is stipulated that God will hold humans accountable even for the blood of an animal. According to the Rabbis, this means that the life of an animal must be taken without cruelty and with reverence (Genesis 9:3).

Aronofsky portrays the righteous descendants of Seth–through Methuselah, Lamech, and Noah, preserving this “peaceable kingdom” of non-violence and harmony with nature, whereas the murderous descendants of Cain had filled the earth with violence  and “corrupted its ways upon the earth.” God’s decision is to destroy humankind “along with the earth” they have corrupted (Genesis 6:12-13). The barren wasteland, and specifically the abandoned strip-mining scene, is a testimony to what humans have made of the “good Earth” that was the original Creator’s handiwork.

Noah’s family represents the last remnant of hope for humankind’s peaceable ideal in which violence toward humans or beasts is quelled and warfare ceases. This is the vision of Isaiah the prophet for the ideal human future–swords beaten into plowshares and the wolf lying with the lamb with none hurting or destroying. In fact Isaiah pictures a time when “slaying an ox” will be considered as weighty a matter as killing a human being (Isaiah 65:25-66:3).

The Film Devalues Humans
Again, I have to say, “guilty as charged”—and thus thoroughly biblical. There could be no stronger expression of the “devaluing” of humans than we find in the Bible in the time of Noah. The Creator says that He regrets that he has created the human species and that it grieves Him to his heart. The entire species is characterized as hopelessly “wicked” with every thought of the heart only evil continually (Genesis 6:5-7). It is an open question then–as Aronofsky so profoundly portrays in the film–as to whether humankind should continue. This is not a Christian text, with presuppositions about God so loving the world and sending his Son to die for sinners–with infinite love for every wicked person and their eternal salvation. That simply is not the biblical story here in Genesis 6. The issue is whether the Creation itself has been so marred and destroyed by human behavior that it is best wiped away as a failed attempt by God to create creatures in His image–who nonetheless have free will and the “knowledge of good and evil.” The Flood story touches upon the essential existential issue of our own time—our “human all-too-human” role on a planet upon which our dominant place as moral beings with choice is continually being weighed in the balance.

Noah and his family are to be spared–since they have not gone the “way of Cain,” but Noah himself, in the film, wrestles with the central dilemma of the text–should the human race be spared at all? The key point in the film, which I will not explicitly give away, is when Noah sees an evil “Serpent” reflection of himself on one of the Tubal-Cain character’s faces—a kind of flashback to the Garden of Eden–and it suddenly dawns on him that we are all of one species. This means that all of us have the potential for horrible evil manifesting itself in our lives, or in the lives of our descendants. His wife, played by Jennifer Connelly, presents the other side of the conundrum–arguing that “we are good, our children are good,” and thus should be spared to inhabit a new world in which peace and righteousness would prevail and create a new world order.

It is not a matter of Noah favoring a flower over the life of the two newborn infants (again I will not elaborate this plot line here)–but wrestling with the moral dilemma–which is the Creator’s Dilemma–of whether or not the race should continue. Not picking even a flower is the very point. This “environmentalism” represents the “good way” of caring for the earth, for its creatures, and for one another and living in peace—in sharp contrast to the way of power and exploitation of the descendants of Cain.

Tubal-Cain, played by Ray Winstone, represents an ultimately opposite perspective. For him what makes a man truly a man is the complete independence from any Creator or any other moral code–forging his individual way in the earth through his power and his choices.  As he says to Noah just before he dies—“I told you the Creator’s miracles mean nothing to me.” Thus when Ham ends up killing him to save his father he tells him–“Now you have become a man,” just because Ham has finally acted autonomously and thus gone “beyond good and evil.”

The Hebrew Bible, unlike the Christian New Testament, explores this theme of the ultimate fate of humankind and the “good earth” in any number of places. In fact, in the closing book of the Prophets, the book of Malach, which ends the Christian Old Testament, we find the sober warning that if humans do not find peace among themselves the Creator will come and “strike the earth with a curse.” The word translated “curse” (Hebrew cherem) here means an “ban of utter destruction.” So even at the end of the Hebrew Prophets humankind is pictured as standing on the brink of judgment with a choice of death or life before them.

The Film Does Not Follow the Bible
In addition to addressing these various controversial points I should add that the film has lots more–with special effects, bizarre phenomenon, and all sorts of creative and artistic embellishments on the rather “bare” story of Genesis 6-9. One must remember, however, that Genesis is not our only account of the Flood. There are other literary sources such as the Gilgamesh Epic and the mysterious books of 1 Enoch and Jubilees–revered by both ancient Jews and early Christians–but not included in the Bible–but found among the Dead Sea Scrolls. There one does read more of the mysterious heavenly “Watchers,” fallen down to earth, who teach humankind all the skills that the descendants of Cain pervert into selfish ends. There is a wonderful and emerging web site that deals broadly with this whole topic, many of the other texts, and a wide range of insightful commentary and discussion–FloodofNoah.com. I highly recommend this site to my readers. And I hope you will all see the Noah film and decide for yourselves about its value and its merits.

 

 

Dead Messiahs Who Don’t Return

The late Norman Perrin, my New Testament professor at the University of Chicago, used to tell us that there was one thing certain in the study of the long history of Jewish and Christian apocalypticism—a 100-percent failure rate. H.H. Rowley published a collection of s that he had delivered in 1942, during the darkest days of WWII, titled The Relevance of Apocalyptic. Rowley never discounted the symbolic power and potential theological meaning of apocalyptic symbols. But he offers at one point an astute observation. At the time, Hitler had taken most of Europe and General Rommel had orders to march to Jerusalem, link up with the Arab allies and crush the Zionists once and for all. One could hardly imagine a better candidate for the Beast than Nazi Germany with its Führer. In both the United States and Britain, the Bible prophecy movement was having a heyday. Rowley wrote:

“Yet where for more than two thousand years a hope has proved illusory, we should beware of embracing it afresh. The writers of these books were mistaken in their hopes of imminent deliverance; their interpreters who believed the consummation was imminent in their day proved mistaken; and they who bring the same principles and the same hopes afresh to the prophecies will prove equally mistaken” (p. 173).

Screen Shot 2013-12-18 at 11.30.56 AMI was reminded of the wisdom of Rowley’s cautionary warning by the news of the death of evangelist Harold Camping this week–he was 92. Readers might remember his widely publicized prediction of the return of Christ on May 21, 2011, covered by the national media:

Camping’s most widely spread prediction was that the Rapture would happen on May 21, 2011. His independent Christian media empire, Family Radio, with assets in excess of 100 million dollars, spent millions of dollars — much of it from donations made by followers who quit their jobs and sold all their possessions— to spread the word on more than 5,000 billboards plastered with the Judgment Day message.

Camping, who had previously predicted 1994 had revised his date to 2011 acknowledging a mathematical error. His reasoning for the date of May 21, 2011 had to do with his dating of the biblical Flood in the days of Noah:

Camping dated the Great Flood to 4990 BC. Taking the prediction in Genesis 7:4 (“Seven days from now I will send rain on the earth”) to be a prediction of the end of the world, and combining it with 2 Peter 3:8 (“With the Lord a day is like a thousand years, and a thousand years are like a day”), Camping concluded that the end of the world will occur in 2011, 7000 years from 4990 BC. The 17th day of the second month (Jewish lunar calendar) mentioned in Genesis 7:11 works out to be the 21st May on the Gregorian calendar, and hence he predicted the rapture to occur on this date.

One of the areas of study I have specialized in over the past three decades is the phenomenon of ancient and modern apocalypticism–namely those systems of thinking about the future in which an imminent “end of the age” is contemplated. I have published widely on this subject, from the Dead Sea Scrolls, to Jesus as an apocalyptic messiah, to David Koresh and Waco. Many of these publications I have put on-line and I encourage those of you who teach, study, or work in these areas to use them freely:

I would begin with my paper “Dead Messiahs Who Don’t Return,” on the apocalyptic speculations in the Dead Sea Scrolls given at the American Academy of Religion Annual meeting in 1997.  The survey article “Ancient Jewish and Early Christian Millennialism,” In Oxford Handbook of Millennialism, ed., Cathy Wessinger attempts to give a broad overview of the ancient period. At the turn of the millennium–remember the Y2K panic?–I published Why 2K?: The Biblical Roots of Millennialism in Bible Review, which offers an overview of Christian apocalypticism through the ages. There is also “Apocayptic Schemes and Dreams: How An Ancient Jewish Vision of the Future Came to Dominate the Modern World,” in The End of Days?: Millennialism from the Hebrew Bible to the Present, edited by Leonard J. Greenspoon and Ronald A. Simkins (Omaha: Creighton University Press, 2003), pp. 49-61. On the Dead Sea Scrolls and Jesus as an apocalyptic figure of the late 2nd Temple Jewish period, see: “Standing in the Shadow of Schweitzer: What Can We Say about an Apocalyptic Jesus?The Review of the Committee for the Scientific Examination of Religion 2:1 (2007): 8-10; my paper “One, Two, or Three Messiahs: Dynastic and Priestly Pedigrees from the Maccabees to Masada,” the overview “What the Bible Really Says About the Future,” in What the Bible Really Says, edited by Morton Smith and Joseph Hoffmann, and of course my book, The Jesus Dynasty. I wrote an entire book on Waco with Eugene Gallagher, you can read the first chapter on-line here, and I urge readers to get the book as well, especially those interested in interpretations of the Book of Revelation. Remember, it was David Koresh whose claim to fame was the ability to open the “Seven Seals.”

As a historian of religions I have to agree with H. H. Rowley’s cautionary skepticism about any such predictions in the future. I have studied closely the various apocalyptic schemes of the Adventist movement, the Jehovah’s Witnesses, the Worldwide Church of God, popular American Dispensationalism (Hal Lindsely et al.), and the Branch Davidians. I find these movements endlessly fascinating, but on the whole their adherents are as deluded as they are sincere–which ends up being a toxic mixture.

Finding the “God Particle,” the Inside Story

Many will remember the news flashing around the globe last July 4th when physicists at the Large Hadron Collider outside Geneva broke out the champagne as they announced the discovery of the long-sought after Higgs Boson particle, dubbed the “God Particle” by the popular media. Peter Higgs of the University of Edingburgh, back in 1964 had theorized that a secret invisible force field was at the core of the universe, giving everything else its existence. A handful of other physics theorists had further contributed to this elusive possibility. The July 4th confirmation of the “Standard Theory” of physics was by some account the big news of 2012–and perhaps of the New Millennium. Understanding it as a non-spet is another matter.

Illustration by Sean McCabe/Photographs by David Ahntholz and Michal Czerwonka for The New York Times

Today’s New York Times “Science” section has a lengthy but marvelous feature story, “Chasing the Higgs Boson,” on the discovery and the years of effort that went into its confirmation. It is well worth an hour to read through, as much for trying to better understand the complex physics  and how our universe works, as for fascinating glimpse at the international team of personalities at CERN–the European Council for Nuclear Research–who were responsible for the breakthrough.

Is The Jesus Discovery Tabloid Journalism?

Many months ago I did an interview with talented Italian reporter Elisa Bosco for Fenix magazine on our recent Talpiot tomb discoveries. Her extensive story, Giona e la Tomba della Resurrezione,” which translates as “Jonah and the Resurrection Tomb,” running as the cover story in the current issue, has just come out. I don’t know how good your Italian might be but you can get the idea if you would like to take a look, see here.

My Italian colleague Antonio Lombatti has already commented here on his blog in Italian, pointing out that Fenix magazine is an Italian tabloid that specializes in sensationalist type stories ranging from “Atlantis being found” to “Aliens built the pyramids.” Not knowing the Italian press I trust his point in that regard but his concluding remark, that such media outlets are the “right place” for our discoveries in the Talpiot “patio tomb” is nasty, unprofessional, and uncalled for, despite his disagreement with our interpretation. What I do know is the reporter, Elisa Bosco worked hard to get the story right. I am not fluent in Italian and I look forward to reading a translation of her story and will withhold judgment until I have read it. Tabloid or not, you’ve gotta love those crazy Fenix covers–talk about a combination of images!

For the record I should point out that our press conferences have been open to any and all reporters who come and we do not try to control who writes popular stories or the shape they might take. Anyone who has dealt with the press knows this is the case and often errors or mistakes are made in stories no matter how carefully we all try to prevent them. However, beyond any popular press coverage of our Talpiot tomb discoveries there is a responsible cover story on Eretz magazine that had added substantially to what we know, see my blog post here, our academic report on our findings at Bible & Interpretation here, a half dozen follow-up articles at B&I with comments (search for “Jonah”), a wide-ranging and responsible academic discussion with comments on the ASOR Blog for the entire month of March here, our fully documented book, The Jesus Discovery, which covers both Talpiot tombs, and our web site with lots of photos and other materials here. I will be presenting a paper on our findings at the Society of Biblical Literature meeting in Chicago in November, and at the ASOR regional meeting next Spring. Let’s just say for now there is lots more to come.

Marvin Meyer Has Died

I just received the sad news that Marvin Meyer died yesterday. Marvin and I were friends and colleagues over many years. His wife Bonnie just posted on his Facebook page these touching words:

Hello, Facebook friends of Dr. Marvin Meyer: This is Marv’s wife Bonnie writing the sad news that Marv passed away yesterday, Aug. 16, after a battle with melanoma. His passing was peaceful, surrounded by our family. Our hearts are broken.

My condolences to his family. He was only 64 years old and so very healthy, athletic, energetic, and alive.  He is survived by his dear wife Bonita and his children, Stephen, Jonathan, and Elizabeth. You can read some about Marvin and his remarkable career and professional life here, and his CV is here. He was a professor at Chapman University and known best for his work in The Jesus Seminar and on the Gnostic Gospels, including the Gospel of Mary Magdalene and newly discovered the Gospel of Judas. More recently his focus was on phenomenon of ritual and magic in antiquity. Marvin will be sorely missed by all of us who knew him and worked with him. My hope is that those readers of my blog who have not heard of him in life will now find him through his books and articles even though he is now dead.

Another Review of Friedman’s Wonderful Aleppo Codex Whodunit

This fascinating review of Matti Friedman’s book, The Aleppo Codex, by Stephanie Saldaña is well worth reading. It appeared in the Israeli newspaper HaAretz on Monday. The extensive NYTimes magazine piece that I mentioned last week is also well worth a read. The NYTimes also has a fascinating interview with the Friedman here. You can find Matti’s wonderful book here.

It’s the most accurate extant text of what we know as the Hebrew Bible, and it survived handily for over 1,000 years. Then came 1947, and the UN decision to create the State of Israel, and the Aleppo Codex turned into a real hot potato.

HaAretz English Edition, August 6, 2012

By Stephanie Saldaña

The Aleppo Codex:
A True Story of Obsession, Faith, and the Pursuit of an Ancient Book, by Matti Friedman
Algonquin Books, 320 pages, $24.95

Eight years ago, when I was living as a student in the Christian Quarter of Damascus, I would often wander across Straight Street to the Jewish Quarter of the city.

Still known as Harat al-Yahud by the local residents, its narrow alleys were haunted with vacant houses and entire sections of streets that had been left uninhabited when Jews left the city, many as recently as 1992.

A sculptor in a sprawling Jewish residence could point you down the road to an empty synagogue, hidden in a tiny alley and padlocked shut, its beautiful bronze doors intact. An estimated 30,000 Jews had lived in Syria in 1947. Though nearly all had left, they came up often in conversation, as merchants spoke of their former houses and shops, the noise their hammers made as they pounded their famed metal work. They had been there so long that the neighborhood couldn’t quite forget them.

Any traveler in the Arab world today is familiar with these absences, which seem to cast a shadow over otherwise ordinary afternoons. There are the Jewish houses in Essaouira, Morocco, cooled by the sea breeze; the empty synagogues in Cairo; the abandoned Jewish cemetery in downtown Beirut, many of the tombstones inscribed in Arabic, French and also Hebrew. And there is Aleppo, a trading city in northern Syria that was home for over two millennia to one of the world’s most ancient Jewish communities, whose members were protected, in their minds, by their ownership of the book of books, the Aleppo Codex, also known as the Crown of Aleppo.

It is into this forgotten Aleppo that journalist Matti Friedman, formerly a correspondent for the Associated Press and now a journalist for the Times of Israel, brings us in his fascinating new book “The Aleppo Codex: A True Story of Obsession, Faith, and the Pursuit of an Ancient Book.”

Ostensibly a book about the most perfect copy of the Hebrew Bible and its mysterious journey from Aleppo to Jerusalem in the 1950s, it is in fact a story about much more: about how the Aleppo Jewish community became tied up in the events of November 29, 1947, in ways that its members could never anticipate, and about how not only a book, but an entire world, began to quietly disappear.

The Aleppo Codex, still considered the most authoritative copy of the Masoretic text of the Hebrew Bible in existence, was compiled around 930 C.E. in Tiberias by the master scholar Aaron ben Moses ben Asher and the scribe Shlomo ben Buya’a. It was a time, as Friedman points out, in which “nine out of every ten Jews in the world, including the scribe and the scholar, lived in the lands of Islam.”

It was the very notion of exile, at a moment in which Jewish communities lay scattered, that laid the foundation for the creation of the Codex. Now that the Jews no longer had a king, a temple or geography in common, they needed to be bound by something else: in this case, a book. Though the Hebrew Bible had already been written down in scrolls, this alone was no longer enough, for the lack of vowels and commentary allowed for too much uncertainty. If a book was going to connect them, then they needed to agree on exactly what that book said, not only on the words, but on every aspect of the text, every vowel and cantillation mark. Disagreement on the smallest aspect of the text threatened to create rifts among the believers.

Hundreds of years after the destruction of the Temple, scholars in Tiberias set out to create the single authoritative version of the Hebrew Bible, a project that continued over generations. The greatest of the rabbis working on the project came from the Ben-Asher family.

In turn, their greatest scholar was Aaron, who inherited the cumulative knowledge of the five or six generations who worked before him, and whose wisdom culminated in what became known as the Crown of Aleppo, the most accurate version of the Bible in the world. This was the Bible on which all others would be based, complete not only with the Hebrew text but also with vowels and symbols that showed how the words should be chanted. Since it would be used as a reference book and not in worship, it was written down not on a scroll but in a codex, hundreds of parchment leaves bound together in the earliest version of a book
Ben Buya’a and Ben Asher labored over their work for years, the former writing out the words, the latter recording the vowels and cantillation marks above and below them and adding notes in the margins. The result of their labors was a document that generations of scholars could refer to any time they had a question or disagreement over the meaning of the text.

Taken by Crusaders

The story of the Aleppo Codex’s survival, which Friedman recounts in almost cinematic detail, is as unlikely as it is astonishing: Purchased by a wealthy Karaite benefactor in the 11th century, it was moved to a Karaite synagogue in the Old City of Jerusalem, from which it was taken by the Crusaders after 1099, when they sacked the city, ransomed back by the Jews, and then brought to the thriving Jewish community in Fustat, outside of Cairo, where it was used by Moses Maimonides when he wrote his Mishneh Torah in the 12th century. In the 14th century, it was carried to Aleppo, where it joined a community that traced its roots back to before the destruction of the Second Temple. There it was housed in the so-called Cave of the Prophet Elijah, behind the city’s main synagogue, where it remained, largely untouched, for the next 600 years.

Friedman’s story begins not in the ancient past, but in Aleppo in 1947, on the eve of the UN vote on the partition of Palestine and the creation of the State of Israel. Most of the city’s Jewish community, halfway across the world from UN headquarters in New York, seemed largely unaware that it was even happening. In one of the book’s more masterful scenes, Friedman takes us to Rabbi Moshe Tawil’s sermon shortly before the vote. Like many other Jewish leaders in the Arab world, Tawil attempted to publicly distance himself from Zionism, as the vote approached. In his sermon he warns the Aleppo community about the dangers of the Zionist movement, informing its members that the young Aleppo Jews who had already arrived in Palestine were “living among secular Sots from Europe, eating food that was unclean and abandoning the faith of their fathers.”

At the same, the Jews of Aleppo had built a complex relationship with the Muslims and Christians of their own city. In what turned out to be a mixed blessing, Jews had enjoyed special influence and protection from the French Mandate, and when France handed over administrative control to Syria in 1946, the Jews were left to fend for themselves. Friedman brings this complex world alive, a city in which Jews spoke French and Arabic with a special accent belonging to Jews and Christians, a city in which most Jews purchased their kosher meat from Muslim-owned shops that hired Jewish ritual slaughterers. The young Rafi Sutton, an Aleppo Jewish teenager at the time who later becomes a Mossad agent in Israel and who is followed throughout the book, a character as obsessed with the Aleppo Codex as the author himself, recounts participating in the demonstrations against the French in an attempt to blend in with his Muslim neighbors.

It is the extent to which the Jewish community was completely entwined in the life of the city that makes the speed of its demise so tragic. After the vote in New York in favor of partition became known in Aleppo, mobs began burning the synagogues. Jews feared for their lives. This section of the book, beautifully written, recounts the realities of that period in all their complexity; even as some Muslims were torching shops, others were warning Jews not to leave their houses and were facing down mobs. One Jewish resident of Aleppo is sent to seek shelter in the home of his Armenian nanny. In the meantime, the rabbis began spreading the rumor that the Crown of Aleppo had been consumed in a fire. Instead, it went into hiding in Aleppo for a decade.

The ensuing story, of how the codex eventually made its way from Aleppo to Jerusalem, takes up the bulk of the book, and involves marauders and thieves at almost every stage. In it Friedman exposes an astonishing fact about the so-called “perfect version” of the Bible: At some point between its departure from Aleppo and its arrival in Israel − and possibly even after its arrival in Israel − several hundred of the volume’s pages went missing, including almost the entirety of the text of the Torah, never to reappear. Friedman sets out to track down the missing pages, and in doing so he exposes decades of cover-ups and an entire “codex underground,” whose members are obsessed with finding the same thing.

The controversy surrounding the damaged codex does not stop upon its arrival in Israel, but only deepens.

Who represents the Jews?

At the root of the complex story of the Crown of Aleppo are two very different ideas about what exile means and who represents the Jewish people. For many of the Jews who left Aleppo in the 1940s and 50s, largely immigrating not to Israel but to New York and more far-flung countries, Aleppo had been home, the crown a symbol of their ancient and vibrant community. For them, the flight from their city marked not the end but the beginning of exile, and from their perspective the Crown was undoubtedly theirs alone to keep. For Zionist leaders, the Crown, like the Dead Sea Scrolls, became a symbol of a larger Jewish history of exile one that had now triumphantly returned to the newly born Jewish State. The question of how Murad Faham, the Syrian Jew entrusted with spiriting the Codex out of Aleppo and to Israel, comes to hand it over not to the head of the Aleppo community but to the Aliya Department of the Jewish Agency, would create generations of disagreements and a court case, finally resulting in the Aleppo Jewish community losing their greatest treasure.

In describing the current state of the Aleppo Codex, now partially on display in the Shrine of the Book at the Israel Museum, Friedman does not mince words. “The Crown of Aleppo was never given to Israel,” he writes. “It was taken.”

As the story moves from the past to the present day, it reads less like a history book than a detective novel, as Friedman obsessively pursues the question of the codex and its missing pages. Yet oddly enough, it is the most shocking elements of the tale, those of corruption at the highest level of Israeli society, that in the end are the least gripping, for they lack the novelistic detail of the earlier scenes.

Friedman’s writing shines most when he resurrects a time and a place now vanished, and it is the residents of Aleppo and the ancient community they lost who are most memorable, as are the powerful stories of men fleeing Syria on Shabbat so they would not be suspected of being Jewish, the unlikely details of a Christian safe house on the Lebanese border that served as a haven for Jewish refugees, and the tale of a Jewish woman fleeing Syria by boat who cannot stand the taste of the pickled herring she is offered by a well-meaning local when she arrives in Israel. We read “The Aleppo Codex” expecting to be educated about a book lost, but we are captivated by a world lost instead.

As the situation unravels in the Syria of today, Friedman’s book takes on a resonance that he surely never anticipated when he began writing. Not long before I started reading, I spoke on the phone with a friend of mine, a Christian from Homs, home to one of the region’s most ancient Christian communities. Now, almost all the Christians have fled the city. I thought of her when I came upon a line in Friedman’s book: “A world thousands of years in the making simply vanished. Few besides the Aleppo Jews themselves seem to have noticed.”

Stephanie Saldaña is the author of the memoir “The Bread of Angels.” She lives in Jerusalem.