Archive for December, 2012

In the Montreal Gazette:

Jerusalem — If hockey is Canada’s national sport, archeology is Israel’s. Wherever one walks, one treads on history; wherever one drives, one travels through history. Whenever one talks — well, consider for example a recent phone call I made to my daughter arranging to pick her up: “I’ll take the Valley of the Cross (the reference is obvious), go up Gaza St. (the ancient route from Jerusalem to the coast) and meet you just outside the Western Wall (the only remainder of Jerusalem’s Holy Temple).” If I go hiking near our house, which directly faces the Judean Hills (where John the Baptist hid out in his day), each of my footsteps crunches on pottery shards strewn about rocky terraces built more than 2,000 years ago by the Children of Israel (my forefathers).

When I learned a few years ago that the famous archeologist Ehud Netzer was leading a tour of Herodium, the site where he had located the grave of Herod the Great, I jumped at the chance. The outing was sponsored by a jewel of an institution, the Bible Lands Museum (sponsored in large part by Canadian philanthropy and itself worth a visit, either in person or via its website,

Herod the Great — as opposed to other Herods less grand — was a sort of Jewish king who ruled Palestine under the umbrella of the Roman Empire from 37 BCE until his gruesome death (more on that later) in 4 CE. Among other things, he was known for grandiose and extensive building; he made his kingdom a place of wonder for, and even tourism from, the reaches of the Roman Empire. In addition to Herodium, Herod erected magnificent buildings in Caesarea and Masada, among others, and was responsible for renovating and refurbishing the great temple in Jerusalem.

Herodium, a few kilometres southwest of Jerusalem, was one of the king’s grandest building projects, serving as summer palace, monument and district administrative capital. As our guide explained, “Think of Herodium’s relationship to Jerusalem as Versailles’s to Paris.” As evidence of how important it was to Herod, this complex was the only one of his many impressive sites that he named after himself.

Above all, this was Herod’s self-chosen place of burial. Why there? As Prof. Netzer recounted, at one point Herod, his family and his armed retainers had to escape Jerusalem during a brief siege of the city by the Parthians, the Roman enemy of the month. During this tactical retreat, Herod’s mother was almost killed when her carriage crashed. But she survived, and Herod vowed he would make the spot his place of burial. And so he did.

For the past 100 years, archeologists have worked at Herodium, but no one had located Herod’s grave until just a few years ago, when Netzer, a trained architect, experienced archeologist and professor at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, announced that he had discovered the mausoleum halfway up the slope of the cone-shaped site. Why are most archeologists so certain that this was indeed the site of the tomb and that Herod was actually buried there? Well, one can read all about it from the pen of Flavius Josephus, a contemporary historian.

The grand mausoleum is still being excavated and is not yet open to the public — unless you happen to be accompanied by the archeologist who discovered it. (Sadly, in 2010, a few months after our tour, Netzer died as a result of a fall suffered at his beloved site.) As I took in the place, I couldn’t help but wonder what illness Herod died from. In the case of most ancient personages, we haven’t got a clue. But here, once again, Josephus steps into the breach. Quoting more contemporary sources (Herod had died several decades before Josephus wrote his own account), he describes the king’s symptoms:

“He had a fever, though not a raging fever, an intolerable itching of the whole skin, continuous pains in the intestines, tumours of the feet as in dropsy, inflammation of the abdomen and gangrene of the privy parts.” He also suffered, according to Josephus, from “limb convulsions, asthma and foul breath.”

The doctors of the day were, not surprisingly, flummoxed by this combination of symptoms. They used the contemporary therapeutic armamentarium, including immersing the patient in a bath of hot oil. But Herod received no relief, and the bath burned his eyes.

The clinically curious of today can turn to the more modern Historical Clinicopathological Conference put on by the University of Maryland, which brings experts together periodically to examine the death of a famous personage, and which recently tackled Herod’s case. The combination of symptoms was a challenging one, especially the presence of gangrene of the genitalia — something one does not see every day. The scientists used a clever bit of clinical reasoning and came to a tentative conclusion: chronic kidney failure of unknown cause complicated by the rare (thank God) Fournier’s gangrene of the testicles. There are other candidates, of course, such as syphilis or other sexually transmitted diseases, but the kidney diagnosis seemed to fit the symptoms best.

Unfortunately for us and for medical history, Prof. Netzer found no human remains in the mausoleum, probably because it had been ransacked by Jewish rebels during the revolt against the Romans about 70 years after Herod died. So we’ll never know the true cause of his death — but the speculation is fascinating.


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Custody of the Holy Land:

The website of the Custody enables one to follow the life and reality of the Holy Land, in eight languages: English, Italian, French, Spanish, Portuguese, Arabic, Hebrew and Russian.

From now, the Custody of the Holy Land has also been on Twitter, enabling all to participate in real time and in eight languages the events, celebrations and initiative that occur every day in the Holy Land.

Follow us on Twitter and on our website.

And the Twitter account is here.

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University of Cambridge:

Cambridge University Library is to release digital versions of some of the most significant religious manuscripts in the world – following on from last year’s release of Isaac Newton’s manuscripts and notebooks.

Launched in December last year (2011), the Cambridge Digital Library has already attracted tens of millions of hits on its website. Among the 25,000 new images being made freely available at are a 2,000-year old copy of The Ten Commandments (the famous Nash Papyrus) and one of the most remarkable ancient copies of the New Testament (Codex Bezae).

While the latest release focuses on faith traditions – including important texts from Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Buddhism, Hinduism and Jainism – many of the manuscripts being made available are also of great political, cultural and historical importance…

Rest here.


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Associates for Biblical Research:

The course, called Archaeology and the Bible, will be taught by ABR Director of Development Henry Smith and GBS instructor Justin Singleton. Justin also serves as an ABR Associate. This course will discuss topics of archaeological importance as they relate to the Bible, including both significant finds and the procedures of archaeological discovery. The course will also help you deal with skeptical objections to the historicity of the Bible. The class offered this Spring will have an online component and an on-campus component. There will be a 2-day block session held in Cincinnati, Ohio on Jan 24-25, with a few weeks of online coursework that follow.

The class can be taken for 1, 2, or 3 credit hours (depending on the amount of work the student contracts to do). The one-credit version of the course costs less than $160, including room and board for the time you are on campus. To enroll in the course, or to get more information, contact Dr. Mark Bird at, by Jan 7th, 2013. You do not need to enroll at GBS or be matriculated to take the course. Find out more information about God’s Bible College by visiting:


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Cardinal Newman Society:

A new study from the American Academy of Religion and the Society of Biblical Literature found that there are fewer jobs being posted for college professors in theology and religious studies than there were prior to the economy tanking in 2008. The number of postings in 2009 was down 46 percent from the previous year across American higher education. In addition, the data show that fewer of the positions that are being offered are tenure track. In 2008, 82 percent of the positions offered were tenure track, but that number dropped to 51 percent in 2009 and 61 percent in 2010.

The study does not speculate on the reasons for the declines, but they most likely have to do with the recession that began in 2008. Other reasons could include less emphasis on religion relative to other subject areas, or lower student enrollment in religion courses.


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A salvage dig meant to allow the construction of a new light rail line uncovers a farm society active around the time of the heroes of Hanukkah.

Times of Israel:

Israeli archaeologists digging under a road in Jerusalem have uncovered the remains of an agricultural community that could yield new information on the lives of residents before and after the rise of the Hasmonean dynasty around 2,200 years ago, the Israel Antiquities Authority said Monday.

The excavation in the city’s modern-day Kiryat Hayovel neighborhood has yielded a perfume bottle, wine press, bread oven and the remains of houses and agricultural buildings, according to an IAA statement.

Archaeologists also found a hand-made lead weight with a letter carved on it — seemingly the letter “yod,” the tenth letter of the Hebrew alphabet and the equivalent of the English letter “y.”

The community seems to have been active both before and after the Maccabees took Jerusalem and re-dedicated the Temple in 164 BCE, marking the beginning of Hasmonean rule, according to the IAA.

That victory is commemorated this week by the festival of Hanukkah.

“Very little is known about the material culture and history of the residents of Jerusalem and the rural area around it in the fourth and third centuries before the common era, and the newly revealed site will help us construct a theoretical model of a settlement in this area,” Daniel Ein-Mor, the dig director, said in a statement released by the IAA on Monday.

The excavation, a salvage dig, is being carried out ahead of an expansion of the Jerusalem light rail system.

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