Reincarnation is Real?

Below is an intriguing video clip taken from Simcha Jacobovici’s new film “Science of the Soul.” I am not a “believer” in reincarnation so I remain skeptical, though I have to admit, back in the 1960s, like millions of others I read the famous book by Morey Bernstein, “The Search for Bridey Murphy” and found it totally gripping. Since then I have read lots of such things, from Edgar Casey materials, to Gurgjieff, to Shirley McClaine, but never been taken much by the idea. My own approach to “life after death” is one of skepticism, and I find the “silence” of the Hebrew Bible on this point instructive–no mater what turns out to be the case, see my blog post, “Reflections on the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament,” here. I guess all of us are geared up to do our “lab work” on the adventure of life and death soon enough, one by one. In the meantime, I continue to be open.

Either way, this clip is worth watching:

Faces of the Bible: A Fascinating New Television Series Debuts in Canada

Meet Delilah: TV series unveils ‘biblical’ faces. Using skulls up to 6,000 years old unearthed by archaeologists, producers recreate how four residents of ancient Israel might have looked

Four faces reconstructed by scientists from ancient skulls for a new TV series were displayed Thursday in Jerusalem.

The lifelike faces, fashioned from clay by a Canadian forensic artist, are based on the skulls of four people whose remains were unearthed in Israel. They include a male, perhaps a hunter, who lived 6,000 years ago and was buried in a Judean Desert cave; a baby interred inside a vase underneath a Jordan Valley house in the same period; a woman thought to be a Philistine who lived on the coast near Ashkelon 3,000 years ago; and a Galilean male who lived around the time of Jesus.

The four-part series, “Biblical Forensics: Real Faces of the Bible,” will have its first screening on Canadian television this weekend.

The skulls were reconstructed for the show by an Israeli forensic anthropologist, Israel Hershkovitz of Tel Aviv University, with the help of technicians using 3D imaging equipment. Victoria Lywood, the forensic artist, then produced clay renderings of what the four might have looked like when they were alive.

The reconstructed faces, which Lywood called “facial approximations” in a nod to the rather inexact business of drawing conclusions about a face based only on a skull, “are made in the same manner that you would use if you found unidentified skeletal remains and the police needed to identify the person,” she said.

“Even though these are archaeological reconstructions, they’ve been done in the same manner as we would use to identify people so that relatives could possibly help give a name to that skeleton,” Lywood said

Read the complete story by Matti Friedman in the Times of Israel here and a nice cover story in the Jewish Independent here. For US viewers the series will show on National Geographic TV later this month.

Of Snails & Things: “The Rarest Blue” Awarded Jewish Book Journal Award

The Rarest Blue is an example of a book that is worthy of attention both for its literary merit and for its Jewish interest…A story of science and religion, of craft and history. The Rarest Blue is spellbinding, each page a revelation. In lovely, engaging prose, the Stermans reveal the rediscovery of snail indigo—a detective story with cultural origins and a spiritual ending. A wonderful book.”
– Roald Hoffmann, winner of the Nobel Prize in Chemistry

One of the more exciting finds over the years at our Mt. Zion dig is a half a dozen snails with the tiny holes drilled in them to remove the “blue dye” or techelet–mentioned in the Torah and used for several ritual purposes in Jewish tradition. These are rare in Jerusalem and I think so far our Mt Zion site has yielded the most examples. Here is a nice photo of one of our finds. If any of you want to join us this summer we still have places, see information and links here: “Dig Mount Zion Summer 2013: How to Participate.”

You can read more from Simcha Jacobovici’s blog this morning, including a link to a fascinating episode of his “Naked Archaeologist” series that you can watch free at the link below:

The making of a memorable book requires the skills of an alchemist. Every author starts with the raw material of his or her own experience and expertise, but it can take a certain secret ingredient — passion, vision, inspiration — to transform the dross into gold. That is a fair description of what Baruch Sterman and Judy Taubes Sterman have accomplished in The Rarest Blue

For the full article about the award click here.

The Rarest Blue is a fabulous book on the rediscovery of Biblical blue. It’s a discovery of monumental proportions. A real scientific and Biblical detective story. I made a film about this and now the book is out. It’s written by physicist Baruch Sterman. Click below to enjoy watching the Naked Archaeologist episode on the subject, “True Blue” on SimchaJTV.


For centuries, blue and purple dyed fabrics ranked among the ancient world’s most desirable objects, commanding many times their weight in gold. Few people knew their secrets, carefully guarding the valuable knowledge, and strict laws regulated their production and use. The Rarest Blue tells the incredible story of tekhelet, the elusive sky-blue color mentioned throughout the Bible. Minoans discovered it; Phoenicians stole it; Roman emperors revered it; and Jews—obeying a commandment to affix a thread of it to their garments—risked their lives for it. But as the Roman Empire dissolved, the color vanished. Then, in the nineteenth century, a marine biologist marveled as yellow snail guts smeared on a fisherman’s shirt turned blue. But what had caused this incredible transformation? Meanwhile, a Hasidic master obsessed with the ancient technique posited that the source of the dye was no snail but a squid. Bitter controversy divided European Jews until a brilliant rabbi proved one side wrong. But had an unscrupulous chemist deceived them? In this richly illustrated book, Baruch Sterman brilliantly recounts the amazing story of this sacred dye that changed the color of history.

Click here to purchase this fascinating book “The Rarest Blue”.


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.

High Tech Archaeology & a New Free e-Book from the Biblical Archaeology Society

Last week I posted a preliminary report on our recent use of electrical resistivity tomography (ERT) or electrical resistivity imaging (ERI) in the area of the Talpiot tombs estate. This is a geophysical technique for imaging sub-surface structures from electrical measurements made at the surface, or by electrodes in one or more boreholes.

I was just reading this morning the fascinating results of attempts to extract fossil pollen from ancient plaster at Ramat Rahel–a royal garden estate dating back to the Persian period just 4000 feet away from the three Talpiot tombs:

The ancient tell (mound) of Ramat Rahel sits on the outskirts of Jerusalem. It features an impressive residency and palatial garden that flourished during the seventh to fourth centuries BCE, when biblical Judah was under the hegemony of the Assyrian, Babylonian and Persian empires. Until recently, the garden’s flora has been a mystery, as standard archaeological procedures were unable to retrieve secure archaeobotanical remains. A unique method of extracting fossil pollen from ancient plaster has now enabled researchers to reconstruct the exact vegetation components of this royal Persian garden and for the first time to shed light on the cultural world of the inhabitants of the residence. The plaster layers and garden are dated archaeologically and by Optically Stimulated Luminescence (OSL) methods to the Persian period (fifth to fourth centuries BCE), and produced evidence of importation by the ruling Persian authorities of special and highly valued trees to the garden from remote parts of the empire.

You can read more here.

And just last week the Biblical Archaeology Society has made available a new e-book that can be downloaded free: Cyber-Archaeology in the Holy Land: The Future of the Past, by Thomas E. Levy and associates. This fascinating book highlights some of the 21st century recording techniques, analytical methods, visualization tools and data-sharing structures that can provide a new pragmatic approach to our examination of the past that will allow the kind of impartial objectivity that is the goal of all scientific endeavors. In this free eBook, archaeologists and researchers from the University of California, San Diego’s Center of Interdisciplinary Science for Art, Architecture and Archaeology, reveal the future of archaeology through their groundbreaking Cyber-Archaeology research at the site of Faynan, Jordan (Biblical Punon). This book shows how Cyber-Archaeology provides objective insights into some of the most heavily debated subjects in Biblical archaeology, including the historicity of Biblical kings David and Solomon. You can download it free and without obligation here.

December 21st Has Arrived at Last!

Although I doubt many of my sophisticated and savvy blog readers are biting their nails today, much less retreating to underground shelters to await the “end of the world,” I did have a few thoughts.

First, for anyone who is interested in the details regarding the Mayan Calendar ruckus this article from Live Science published earlier this week is about the clearest explanation I have seen. I also wanted to pass along this article in the St Louis Beacon by my friend, Prof. Frank Flinn with some advice on how to spend tomorrow morning.

Second, I wanted to point out that the terminology “end of the world” is somewhat of a misnomer when it comes to the biblical texts. What we most often find, certainly in the mouth of Jesus or Paul, is better translated the “end” or “close” of the age. The idea is not so much the dissolution of planet earth as the ushering in of a new era, that of the “kingdom” or reign of God.

Most of you will remember the legitimate Y2K concerns at the beginning of this millennium as we turned the clock from December 31, 1999 to the New Year 2000. The fear was that we would have a breakdown of computer systems worldwide that had been programmed decades earlier to handle dates up to 1999 but no further. Billions of dollars worldwide were invested in “fixes” on most systems but no one seemed to be sure that all would be well. As midnight, December 31st arrived, in addition to reporting on the NY Times Square ball dropping, the global village tuned in to report from TV stations around the globe that “all was well” and nothing serious had been disrupted. A sign of relief and an extra glass of champagne was the only result.

In December, 1999, with the Y2K hysteria at a fever pitch, I published an article in Bible Review “Why 2K? The Biblical Roots of Millennialism,” that offers an overview. You can read it on-line here. It is about much more than Y2K but seeks to lay out how how concepts we associate with the “end of the age” and a new millennium developed among ancient Jews and early Christians–and how they were carried through the ages. More recently I published an academic overview of ancient Jewish and Christian millennialism in the new Oxford Handbook on Millennialism, which you can read on-line here.

I have published a lot on “apocalypticism” over the years and you can find links to much of my work in this post from last summer on “Waiting for the End of the World as We Know It.” Since we have picked up quite a few thousand new readers in the past few months I thought it might be interesting to some of you who have not seen it yet. And while you are browsing you can hear my PBS interview with Robert Kuhn here on “Is This the End Time” if you are further interested.


James Tabor on PBS–Does God Know the Future?

Does God know the future? Millions of Bible believers would answer “yes” without hesitation! Doesn’t the Bible say God knows the end from the beginning? And would not time–whether past, present, or future–be irrelevant to God, who is somehow “outside of time,” as well as Omniscient or “all knowing”? There are dozens of popular films dealing with the alluring theme of “time travel.” We all know the famous conundrum about predicting the future. If I could see that tomorrow you would leave your house, get in your car, and be involved in a wreck and I told you so, could you not just decide to stay home or not drive that day–thus proving my prediction wrong? The past is past but the future is unfolding in nanoseconds, yet to be determined with all the implications and repercussions of an infinite number of causal “events,” and variable choices large and small.

The issue, even from a biblical perspective, is more complex than one might think. What God, according to the prophet Isaiah, actually says is “I declare the end from the beginning, from ancient times things not done, my counsel shall stand and I will accomplish my purpose” (Isaiah 46:10). This is actually quite different from knowing a predetermined future. It is rather a declaration about purpose and intentionality, and it allows for all the variables of human choice and history to unfold in a process. It might be comforting and appealing to believe that anything that happens is somehow “predetermined” by God, but that is not really the biblical perspective of God. There is a vast difference between saying “all things that happen are good” and believing that God works within all things for the good. Strangely, rather than “limiting God” the biblical understanding of God and human history as an unfolding process, involves God in our lives in a way that is profoundly deeper and more responsible, as participants, “made in the image of God,” who have real choices as how the future unfolds.

Here is one more in a series of conversations on the PBS show “Closer to Truth” with the ever perceptive host Dr. Robert Kuhn, where we explore this topic, “Does God Know the Future?”. Click on the video image here for the link to this interview:

If you are not familiar with this remarkable PBS series created by Dr. Robert Kuhn dealing with the “Big Questions,” namely God, Cosmos, and Consciousness, you can browse some of the past shows here. The group of experts he has gathered together is truly impressive, a virtual “Who’s Who” on all sides of every issue, with Kuhn’s probing skills as host bringing out their best.  I am honored to have been included. Television does not get better than this.

Speaking of Immortality…the lowly Jelly fish never dies…

This past Sunday in the New York Times Magazine:

After more than 4,000 years — almost since the dawn of recorded time, when Utnapishtim told Gilgamesh that the secret to immortality lay in a coral found on the ocean floor — man finally discovered eternal life in 1988. He found it, in fact, on the ocean floor. The discovery was made unwittingly by Christian Sommer, a German marine-biology student in his early 20s. He was spending the summer in Rapallo, a small city on the Italian Riviera, where exactly one century earlier Friedrich Nietzsche conceived “Thus Spoke Zarathustra”: “Everything goes, everything comes back; eternally rolls the wheel of being. Everything dies, everything blossoms again. . . .”

Read the rest here.

Who Is a Jew?

Anyone who works on the apostle Paul comes up against this question almost immediately–namely “Who Is a Jew”? After all, in different contexts Paul affirms that “in Christ” there is “neither Jew nor Gentile” while also affirming that “He is a real Jew who is one inwardly, whose circumcision is of the heart.” He also tells his Gentile converts that they are “all the seed of Abraham by faith.” In my book, Paul and Jesus I sort through this mine field of loaded and complex terms in Paul’s letters and try to make sense of the whole for my readers.

In our own time the question gets raised in a variety of contexts–legal, religious, cultural, and ethnic. Are we talking about religious, ethnic, racial, national or cultural identification markers when we use the term “Jewish”? Many years ago I published a short article titled “To Be a Jew: Political and Religious Definitions in Israel Today,” based on a lecture at the Symposium Religion and Ethnicity,” University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill (March, 1990). It was published in Excursus 4 (1991): 9-10 and you can download it here.

There has been a lot of popular press and numerous books and papers over the years dealing with the question of whether those populations that consider themselves Jewish have any distinctive genetic markers. Crassly put, despite any racial or political overtones, the question has often been phrased simply as “Is there a Jewish Gene?” The entire subject is easily miscast and misunderstood and self-identified Jews are rightly wary of any kind of “biological” definition of Jewishness given the “racial” definitions and policies of the Nazis during the 3rd Reich in Germany.

In the latest issue of the New York Review of Books, Richard C. Lewontin reviews two new books on the question of the genetic history of the Jewish people:

Legacy: A Genetic History of the Jewish People by Harry Ostrer
Oxford University Press, 264 pp., $24.95

The Genealogical Science: The Search for Jewish Origins and the Politics of Epistemology by Nadia Abu El-Haj
University of Chicago Press, 311 pp., $35.00

The question of ancestry has been of human concern in virtually all cultures and over all times of which we have any knowledge. Whether it be a story about the origin of a particular tribe or nation and its subsequent mixture with other groups, or curiosity about a family history, there is always the implication that we understand ourselves better if we know our ancestors and that we, within ourselves, reflect properties that have come to us by an unbroken line from past generations. As treasurer of the Marlboro Historical Society in Vermont, I am the recipient of requests for printed copies of the Reverend Ephraim Newton’s mid-eighteenth-century history of our town, 70 percent of whose pages consist of “Genealogical and Biographical Notes” and a “Catalog of Literary Men.” Over and over our correspondents write of the “pride” they have in descending from these early settlers.

Surely pride or shame are appropriate sentiments for actions for which we ourselves are in some way responsible. Why, then, do we feel pride (or shame) for the actions of others over whom we can have had no influence? Do we, in this way, achieve a false modesty or relieve ourselves of the burdens of our own behavior? As a descendant of late-nineteenth-century Eastern European immigrants I cannot depend on Reverend Newton’s pages to explain my frequent contributions to The New York Review, but neither have the extensive “begats” in Genesis 10 or Matthew 1 been more enlightening.

My own skepticism notwithstanding, the belief is widespread that knowledge about the personal characteristics of ancestors who have never directly entered into our lives is relevant to our own formation. Moreover, that relevance is seen not simply as arising from our conscious knowledge about those ancestors, but from a deeper source, our genetical inheritance, which also would operate to form us in part, irrespective of our consciousness of the past. That belief is summed up in the title of Harry Ostrer’s book, Legacy: A Genetic History of the Jewish People. It is also implied in the title of a book by Raphael Falk, Zionism and the Biology of the Jews, whose English translation from the Hebrew original has yet to appear. ((Zionut Vehabiologia Shel Hayehudim (Tel Aviv: Resling, 2006).)) While the term “race” is not used explicitly in these titles, in large part because the term is so loaded, there is considerable discussion of the Jews as a race or, using a less charged word, as a “people.”

“Race” is a term of uncertain etymology and many meanings. It may refer to a whole species (the “human race”), a collection of loosely related individuals with a common appearance (the “white race”), a nation (the “race of Englishmen”), or a single family (“he was the last of his race”). Compounding the ambiguity is the substitution of “people” or “tribe” that seems to shed the historical fardels with which “race” is burdened. Are the Navajo a tribe, a people, or even a race? In a former time, when the classification of humans depended on manifest physical features like skin color, facial and hair form, and skull shape, members of a “race” as opposed to a “people” were claimed to be recognizable as such by the external physical features common to all individuals of the same “race.”

In all these usages the implication is one of common ancestry tracing back ultimately to some relevant founding group, but obviously all such ancestries must incorporate members of other groups at various times in their histories. Even Cain managed to find a wife in the Land of Nod or else he married his sister. For the German National Sots, having more than two Jewish grandparents was sufficient to define a Jew. But if every defined human group necessarily has, at any moment in its history, some ancestry from a variety of other collections of humans, how are we to delineate those groups and reconstruct their family histories?

Ordinary genetics is not sufficient. Each of us has one copy of our chromosomes from our mother and one copy from our father. But of the chromosomes I got from my mother, half of those came from her mother and half from her father so, roughly speaking, I resemble my maternal grandmother only in a quarter of my genes. It doesn’t take many generations before I resemble a particular remote great-grandparent in a very small fraction of my genes. If one of my ancestors four generations ago were black, there is a good chance I would have inherited none of her pigment genes or so few that they would not be apparent in my own skin color.

This random inheritance of genes makes it very difficult to reconstruct the variety of ancestors in remote past generations. Fortunately for those interested in the reconstruction of ancestry there are two useful exceptions to the rule that we inherit only a random one of the two sets of genetic information possessed by each of our parents. One of those exceptions is the single Y chromosome carried by males but not by females. The Y chromosome carries very few genes. We know this to be true because, very rarely, an individual is born having received, as usual, one X chromosome from the female parent but, abnormally, neither an additional X chromosome nor a Y chromosome from the male parent. This individual, called an “XO” type, is a sterile female but otherwise is normal. This general normality in the face of having only a single X chromosome but no Y chromosome tells us that the usual effect of a Y chromosome is essentially only to cause a switch from female to male development.

As a consequence, variation among Y chromosomes can be used to reconstruct ancestry without the confounding effect of possible natural selection for one or another variant. Every son inherits his father’s Y chromosome, which was passed, intact, through the sequence of male ancestors to the present generation. Thus, by examining the Y chromosome DNA from a group of males in some generation and comparing it to the Y chromosomes of various other populations, we can reconstruct the contribution of males from various sources in previous generations to the present population. In particular we can ask what proportion of the Y chromosomes in a given population came from some particular group of historical interest. For example, we can estimate how much Arab slave traders contributed genetically to the present black populations of southeast Africa if the Y chromosomes of the Arabs contain characteristic DNA sequences that are rare or absent elsewhere, but in unusually high frequency among the present African inhabitants of Tanzania.

The other exception to random inheritance is not in the chromosomes, but in the DNA of cellular organelles called mitochondria. Although the cells of both sexes generally contain mitochondria, these organelles are excluded from the bodies of mature sperm and so are never passed into the fertilized egg, which has its own maternally derived mitochondria. Our mitochondria, then, provide us, both male and female, with a record of our maternal ancestry, uncontaminated by their male partners.

Harry Ostrer, who is a professor of genetics at Albert Einstein College of Medicine, and Raphael Falk, who is one of Israel’s most prominent geneticists, depend heavily on our ability to trace ancestry by looking at the DNA of Y chromosomes and ribosomes. Their books are responses to the widespread desire to trace that ancestry and to describe the degree to which the world’s present distribution of Jews consists, with a few possible exceptions like the Kaifeng Jews of China, of people with ancient common roots. For Falk, as the child of German Jews threatened with the Final Solution, the longing for Zion was expressed, as in his parents’ case, “primarily as a wish for relief from the persecutions and other hardships of Jewish life in the Diaspora.” For Ostrer, on the other hand, as he writes in his preface:

Having a 3000-year genetic legacy can be a source of group identity and pride in the same way that having a shared history, culture, and religion can be sources of pride.
Once again we have the question of why having knowledge of remote ancestors and a shared history makes us “proud.” Is it that preening ourselves before the glass of history seems less egotistical than inspecting our images in the glass of fashion?

The difference between the motivations of the authors is manifest in the properties each assigns to heredity. The element of “pride of ancestry” that permeates Ostrer’s text leads him, especially in his chapter on “Traits,” to extensive discussions of intellectual and professional accomplishment and the degree to which they may reflect innate biological capacity. While he can hardly be described as a naive biological determinist, it seems clear that he leans in the direction of attributing some importance to the biology of the Jews in forming their social accomplishments.

He asserts that accidents of birth, wealth, privilege, and education are not sufficient to explain who will become outstanding lawyers or physicists. Nevertheless, Ostrer does not offer any evidence that the intellectual qualities that make so many Jews into lawyers and physicists are a consequence of their genetic superiority. Indeed, we know nothing about the genetics of nonpathological variation in the cognitive capacities of the brain. An attempt to determine whether intellectual life is genetically heritable would require a large adoption study in which infants would be reared in a controlled environment in circumstances that prevented their caretakers from knowing their family or social origins. Moreover, given the sensitivity of central nervous system development to nutritional and other external factors, the study would have to begin with newborn infants and we would still miss the effects of prenatal circumstances. We should not be surprised that such a study has not been done.

Ostrer’s view of the causes of the high frequency of intellectual careers among Jews is purely speculative. After more than a century of claims that high intellectual or artistic accomplishment is somehow rooted in heredity and, more specifically, in the possession of “genes for high intelligence” or “genes for creativity,” there is no credible evidence for their existence. Indeed, the search for genetic superiority has largely given way to an extensive effort to find the genetic basis for a host of physiological debilities. There is a certain irony in claiming an undemonstrated biological superiority for a group, six million of whom were slaughtered for their claimed natural degeneracy.

Despite this interest in the social and intellectual characteristics of Jews, to which he devotes about a fifth of his text, Ostrer’s chief concern is with the history of the Jews, as revealed in their actually known genetic similarities to and differences from other populations. These similarities and differences occur thanks to various proportions of alternative genetic forms rather than being absolute differences between populations. There is no known “Jewish gene,” and the same comments I have made about the evidence concerning genes for “high intelligence” and “creativity” apply to the existence of those properties in alternative genetic forms.

As an Israeli, Falk’s motivation is directly connected to the political issue of Zionism and the claim of Jews for a national state:

“In this book I wish to discuss two issues: the claim that there is a biology of the Jews on the one hand, and the attempts to integrate this claim into a consistent history of national-political Zionism, on the other hand.”
For him the biology of the Jews enters not as a determinant of their cognitive abilities but as a tool for defining the Jews as a collection of related people who can lay a claim to a geopolitical existence, and for attempting a reconstruction of their history:

In the present world of scientific-technocratic reasoning, biological research is a major tool that demonstrates and validates links between present-day Jews and the land that for centuries has been, unequivocally, the glue of their socio-cultural bonds.
An example of the ultimate irony of personal history is that the author of The Genealogical Science, which deals with the immense complexity of Jewish ancestry, is the occasionally church-attending daughter of a Protestant mother of Northern European ancestry and a father whose name, Abu El-Haj, tells us that a forebear made the pilgrimage to Mecca.

Nadia Abu El-Haj’s avowed purpose is to make clear “the ways in which ‘the past’ is understood to be a constitutive element of the self.” The key word here is “understood.” Her emphasis, over and over, is on how the knowledge of ancestry, revealed by modern techniques of genetics, may serve as a basis for and a legitimation of a self-image. For her, to ignore the genetic information about ancestry “is to abandon a historically authentic self that I carry around within.”

Once again, as in works on the genetics of race, we encounter the concept of an “authentic” self that lies hidden and unexpressed, but which in some sense is the essence of what I am, even if unperceived and without a basis in any scientific demonstration. The concept of a self that is an authentic essence, but not clearly perceived, suggests that my manifest properties and attitudes are a mere patina and that, in ways that I do not recognize, my inherited inner self is struggling to assert itself. The Austrian Catholic Mendel and the Austrian Jew Freud meet on the speculative ground of our inner being.

None of the books being considered claims that there are genetic elements that are characteristic of all or even a large majority of Jews. The closest thing to a “Jewish gene” is an element on the Y chromosome of males that has been passed down at least for several millenia in the male line of the Cohanim family, and whose presence in a man’s genome is evidence of descent from the priestly class. The frequency of this “CMH” (Cohanim Modal Haplotype) is around 50 percent among the members of the Cohen line. This haplotype is by no means exclusive to the Jews. It is found in some other Middle Eastern groups in frequencies of around 20 percent. More unexpected is the very high frequency of the CMH type among the Lemba of southern Africa. These black Africans also have a culture that excludes the eating of pork and the mixing of milk and meat, and includes the circumcision of male children. They claim descent from migrants from the region of what is now Yemen. However, it seems more likely, as Ostrer also concludes, that it was, in fact, the Arab slave traders who spread this culture as Islamic tradition.

In Henry M. Stanley’s account of his passage through southeastern Africa from the region of Dar es Salaam in search of Livingstone, he tells of following the old Arab slavers’ routes through village after village in which the chief was referred to by the title “Sheikh.” Moreover, in a practice very different from the Jewish one, male circumcision among the Lemba occurs not in early infancy but around the age of eight, a practice characterisic of Muslim groups. If one takes account not only of the CMH but of all the genetic variation known on the Y chromosome, the Lemba fall halfway between other sub-Saharan Africans and the populations of the Middle East.

The same kind of questions that are asked about the chain of male ancestry by looking at our Y chromosomes can be investigated in both men and women by studying the mitochondrial DNA we have derived in an unbroken chain from our line of female progenitors.* It turns out that there is much more variation in the mitochondrial DNA of Jewish women than in the Y chromosomal DNA of Jewish men. This is understood by Falk and Ostrer to mean that when the Jews fled ancient Palestine to found the Diaspora, it was not whole families that fled but largely the men, who then found new local mates in the places to which they migrated. Thus, most of the mothers of these founding communities were not themselves Jews but were sources of new genetic variation, and the present genetic variation among Jews is consequently much greater than it was in Palestine three millennia ago.

Y chromosomal DNA or mitochondrial DNA is used by anthropologists and historians precisely because they are each passed down intact from parent to child through the line of parents of one sex unmixed by the genetic information about the parents of the other sex. But what is, on one hand, an advantage for historical information about an ancestor in the remote past is devoid of information about subsequent history, a history that may dominate the present. To satisfy the curiosity of a former student of mine, now the director of the National Geographic Society’s project to reconstruct the history of human migrations using patterns of present human genetic variation, I let him determine that I carry the CMH Y chromosome. Thus, my son, James, also carries it, as does his son. But my wife is of Scandinavian/English ancestry and my son’s wife is of similar stock so, although my grandson must also carry the CMH Y chromosome, his X chromosome is Northern European, as is, given my ignorance of my own distant ancestry, at least three quarters of the rest of his genome. Even the Nuremberg Laws would have exempted him from what would have been my own fate.

Why, then, should he, like most people, be interested in his ancestors? What is the logic of family pride or family shame? He may simply be curious, as so many are.

Abu El-Haj, perhaps because of her own mixed ancestry, has a very sophisticated view of the motivations for and consequences of investigating one’s origins. She argues that the molecular evidence “generates, grounds, and authenticates…narratives of origins, kinship, and history” but its purpose is not to claim that any particular human nature flows from those origins. Rather, she sees such evidence as a manifestation of her belief that the consciousness of being a member of any genetically related ethnic group somehow tells us something fundamental about who we really are, about the solution to our quest for self-knowledge, and requires that one actively embrace that “ancestry,” that one learn about and fashion oneself according to its cultural or religious principles, thereby transforming ancestry into identity or selfhood.

While this belief in the fundamental importance of a knowledge of ancestral origins is undoubtedly widespread, it is far from universal. Yet an indifference to ancestry is sometimes taken as a rejection of one’s “real” identity, even of “self-hatred.” It seems clear that while one may see oneself as “embracing” one’s ancestry, one may also be indifferent to such ancestry, or reject it. No one, including Abu El-Haj, claims that the genetic facts by themselves exert a force obliging people to take one conscious position or another.

Abu El-Haj was at the center of an academic controversy that arose from her first book, Facts on the Ground: Archaeological Practice and Territorial Self-Fashioning in Israeli Society, which appeared in 2001, a year before she became a nontenured member of the faculty in the Department of Anthropology at Barnard, followed several years later by her additional appointment as director of graduate studies at Columbia’s Department of Anthropology. However, when she was being considered for promotion to a tenured professorship in 2007, a bitter struggle over her scholarship was induced by a widely circulated petition claiming that Facts on the Ground was a dishonest, inferior, and biased work that knowingly misrepresented the quality and content of archaeological work on ancient sites in Israel.

The originator of the petition was a graduate of Barnard, Paula Stern, who had emigrated to Israel, ((A detailed history of the campaign against El-Haj’s promotion can be found in Jane Kramer, “The Petition,” The New Yorker, April 14, 2008.)) but her campaign against El-Haj developed considerable support among Barnard and Columbia alumni and some faculty members, as well as a number of writers, political activists, and academic supporters of Israel both inside and outside of Columbia. In the end the campaign against Abu El-Haj failed to prevent her promotion to a tenured position in 2007.

The last chapter of The Genealogical Science considers “the implications of treating DNA as ‘a history book’ for our understandings of both ‘history’ and of its relationship to the self.” For Abu El-Haj, genetic history is an example of a general belief in the “importance and knowability of the past” because, for her, “fundamental aspects of who one is are determined by one’s past” and moreover one can know and reconstruct the past on the basis of remainders of that past, including genetic mutations.

Thus, there is a “fundamental continuity between race science and anthropological genetics” and a belief that “who we really are collectively and individually is given by and legible in biological data.” But she ends by insisting, as in the conclusion about something like embracing “one’s ancestry,” earlier stated, that the choice to learn about myself, to remain who I am or to realign my sense of self vis-à-vis new revealed bodily facts about who I have always already been, remains mine to make.

What is revealed here in her reference to “bodily facts about who I have always already been” is an underlying biological determinism that seems to make her present persona a cosmetic, deliberately applied to the face of an underlying “authentic self.” What is not revealed in her book is what she regards as the nature of that self.

Note: The version of this article published in the Review ’s December 6 issue contained several errors in my references to the use of RNA found in ribosomes and mitochondria to trace female ancestral lines. The standard method at present is to use so-called mitochondrial DNA, as the mitochondria are essentially excluded from the mature sperm and are thus inherited only through the female line. The text above has been revised to reflect this.

Bible History Daily Features TaborBlog Post: Ancient Jewish Hair

Two weeks ago I announced that the ever popular Bible History Daily, published via e-mail and on on the Web, has begun a regular feature of republishing selected posts from my blog. I am both honored and also always a bit curious as to which of the 500 or so posts from the past few years they might choose to feature. Today it is an article I published some years ago but have recently updated and expanded: “The Only Ancient Jewish Male Hair Ever Found.” You can see the BHD post here and the original blog post here.

It is about a totally accidental discovery that Dr. Shimon Gibson, my UNC Charlotte students, and I made late evening when we stumbled across a freshly robbed ancient tomb while hiking in the Valley of Hinnom just south of Jerusalem. It was high adventure. It doesn’t get better than this. Be sure to notice the surprise DNA announcement that I make at the end, linking this tomb somehow to the “Jesus family tomb” in Talpiot–who could have ever guessed that? We still have no idea why or what it might mean in terms of 1st century Jerusalem populations. More on that in a future blog post.

I really recommend my readers subscribe to Bible History Daily. It is free and one of the the best ways to keep up with any breaking news related to “Biblical Archaeology,” as well as special features on many topics related thereto. The free subscription also allows you to download a whole series of free e-Books, on a variety of topics. You can sign up here. If you have not spent a bit of time lately browsing the every growing resources of the Biblical Archaeology Society web site you will be impressively surprised at how much is there and what is available free of charge. The web site, under the direction of Noah Wiener, just keeps getting better and better. [1]

  1. A paid digital subscription gets you everything–including  archive of over 30 years of BAS publications and all sorts of other premiums []