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 essays 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-specialist 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 Socialists 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.