A d F o n t e s

(Latin: "to the sources")

More bad tattoos

I’ve realized that the most popular hits on this blog come from my miniseries on terrible tattoos: here andhere. I found a couple of new ones, so I thought I’d share them.

These are from a “judeo-christian” tattoo site, which is a little ironic given that the Bible outlaws tattoos. It’s sorta like Christians who insist that putting a statue of Moses in a courtroom would be agreeable to Jews too. Yet I digress. It’s a pity to what extent religious zeal can bypass good judgment (but it surely makes for hilarious reading for the rest of us). I repeat my earlier claim: if you’re going to get shite in foreign languages put on your body, you’d better know what you’re doing. If you don’t, you could end up like this poor soul with the Hebrew entirely backwards.

Here’s another great one: It could’ve been a lot better if they didn’t bother to put the vowels in, but that they did makes it virtually incomprehensible. It’s a real mess:

This is hilarious: the fuzzy navel of truth?

Here’s another one: “I am giving birth again!!!” It’s (mistakenly) from 1 Pet 1.3, where God is the subject of the verb (…a divine claim by the tattoo-bearer, or is he pregnant…again…?).

Last one: this poor person is missing FOUR crucial words without which it makes no sense whatsoever: “IN NOMINE patris ET filii ET spiritus sancti.”

It’s too bad you can’t take these back. But man, it’s funny.


June 25, 2009 Posted by | Uncategorized | 9 Comments

ESV vs. …

John Hobbins over at Ancient Hebrew Poetry has an interesting discussion going on the strengths of the ESV over certain other translations. I thought I might weigh in on this for fun! I haven’t done enough with Hebrew in a while despite my JTS training, which I sorely miss.

At any rate, John is entertaining a question from a commenter, namely whether he thinks there are verses in the ESV which are translated better than other translations–a question the commenter says he asks other people who are pro-ESV (presumably because he’s not persuaded that the ESV is worth the hype, something to which John and I would agree I think). John himself is a proponent of all translations in part (a) since they all have their strengths and weaknesses, and (b) since he reads Greek and Hebrew anyway, so doesn’t have much of a dog in the fight. He picks 2 verses as examples: Ps 1.1-4 and 2.1.

Below I decided to pick up on the 2.1 example, particularly because the rabbis were invoked and I’m a rabbinophile. I tried to post my section below on his blog, but it wouldn’t go. So I post it here for your perusal.

The major point John was trying to make is that John was trying to make was that the ESV’s translation of the word רגש as “rage” (“Why to the peoples rage?”) is better than Alter’s (“arouse”) and the NRSV’s/NIV’s/TNIV’s (“conspire”). Rashi was invoked in the comments in order to explain translating “gather/assemble,” which is used in the JPS translation.

I confess, I’m not terribly persuaded that the 2.1 example is a great one, or that the case against Alter and the NRSV is really all that strong. I think the meaning of the word in question is actually pretty messy and not very clear.

1) John mentions HALOT, which translates the term as “restless” here in this passage. I think we should probably wonder where HALOT is getting its information from. It’s taking it largely from Aramaic sources (it’s a lehnwort) and the Sam. Pent., and in those texts the meaning shifts and is pretty broad. It looks like HALOT doesn’t entirely, therefore, know what to do with the word in Hebrew, which is understandable I think.

Note that “aroused” is among the options listed there. It seems to me that HALOT went for an encompassingly vague translation in “restless.” It could easily imply “being aroused,” or “raging,” or whatever. But also, in English surely “aroused” likewise can imply “raging.” There’s a lexical breadth and overlap here that’s worth taking note of. In the Hebrew, particularly given the HALOT information, I’m doubtful one can really insist on one or the other when it comes to Alter vs. the ESV. That said, when it comes to the NRSV, given the data “conspire,” as a direct translation does definitely seem off the table, and to a lesser extent so does “gather,” though IMO not as interpretive translations (see below). It certainly seems a little loose given the NRSV’s translation principles, but (a) nobody’s consistent, and (b) I don’t think it really makes a difference.

2) It’s worth pointing out that it’s not just Rashi that gives the רגש the sense of “gather.” It’s also the Metzudat Tzion (ענין קבוץ והמון רב וכו) and the Metzudat (להתקבץ ולדבר דברי ריק), and the targum (ואמיא מרננין סריקותא). But a couple points need to be made about this: (a) they’re not independent witnesses/translators. They’re all part of the same long tradition, of which Rashi is a “collector” or “synthesizer,” not an innovator. (b) In these comments, they’re not offering translations of גרשו. They’re offering interpretations of what that part of the pasuk means. That’s an important distinction–a given interpretation can imply a particular translation, but not necessarily, especially in rabbinic literature. There are important subtleties.

(3) That said, I do wonder whether they come to this conclusion because they’re viewing both גוים and אומים as subjects of רגשו (which is odd given the placement of the accent in the poetic line). Whatever the case, I guess what I’m saying is that the Miqraot Gedolot needs to be used cautiously here–both by people who want to use it to translate the Hebrew, and by those who don’t.

(4) It is also worth pointing out, though, that each of these rabbinic commentators presume a sense of “conspiring” or “plotting” given to the interpretation. It’s not hard to see why: why else would people gather (or rouse) against the king, given the context of the poem? At an exegetical level, I think it’s hypothetically fine to translate the text this way. It conspiring implies that people are getting upset and are making a plan to react, and if that’s the sense of the psalm then “conspire” isn’t that nutty. But doing so arguably makes an interpretive jump that would be lost on the English reader.

In any case, I don’t think this is a passage where which translation one chooses makes any difference in the world. And John, I completely agree that if this sort of issue really bothers you, learn the language. It ain’t that bad. Sure as heck ain’t as bad as some other ancient languages.


For folks who are super-fond of the ESV, I would encourage them to explain the book of Ephesians. I have to say, particularly the first 2 chs. are atrocious reading. If that jilting translating isn’t enough reason to just learn koine, I don’t know what is.

June 25, 2009 Posted by | Uncategorized | 2 Comments

More on Generalism vs. Specialism

Below Jared kindly directed me to the following SBL link. Here Craig Keener and Mike Bird argue that there is a need for generalist bible scholars. I basically agree with the direction that they’re heading. However, I actually think that what they’ve done is created an argument for why specialists need to be much more “general” than we typically are, not why we need generalists around. I don’t think this is too much to ask; rather, I instead I think it’s a sign that our standards have fallen over the past century. It’s impacted what we expect from each other, from students, and it shows in the quality of our publications (just compare, say, NTS w/ JRS). It’s no mystery that ancient historians tend to hold historical work by NT or rabbinics scholars with great prejudice–the reason is that they’re often not very informed on other relevant historical matters, despite how well they know their own texts, and it shows in their analysis. I know this sounds picky and pejorative. It’s not meant to be. But I think we need to step it up.

That said, I agree with their other argument that there is greater need for multidisciplinary study. It needs to be done carefully though. I’ve seen it done poorly. Last SBL, for instance, there was a “Christianity and Economy” session. I’m a young scholar of economic history, so I stopped by–though primarily out of skepticism: the title struck me as really odd, as if it assumed that “Christianity” as a movement was a justifiable (or even detectable) economic actor that could or should be investigated. My skepticism was warranted: with the exception of one lecture (by an informed historian I know personally), all of the presentations were drastically undertheorized, not up to date on the field, and didn’t exhibit much awareness of the relevant data. There’s a lot to learn, admittedly, but this is an excellent example where knowing the field better would sharpen the questions in much more productive ways. And learning it is not too hard or too much to ask. One of my qualifying exams (of 3) is “social and economic history of the Roman Empire, 1-400). It’s a lot to do, but the basics are manageable.

June 22, 2009 Posted by | Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Specialism vs. Generalism: False Dichotomy

Folks who know me well know I’m awfully opinionated about the need for scholars in any discipline to look beyond their immediate fields of research to other disciplines which might have direct bearing on their work. James Crossley takes up this issue here and I thought I would offer my 2 cents. My earlier post on my 5 fave books hints at my thoughts on this.

In general I think that certain disciplines have increasingly avoided involving themselves in relevant materials. I get the sense that this is particularly an tendency in literature-oriented studies. To give two examples, it is becoming increasingly uncommon, for instance, for latinists and hellenists to only know a modicum of Greek and Roman history, have little awareness of modern debates in those disciplines, to be unfamiliar with ancient political institutions, the disciplines of epigraphy or papyrology, etc. This has gone so far that, for instance, it was not uncommon for me to hear a professor say that he or she is not interested in whether Pliny’s letters have historical referentiality or what history actually lays behind Tacitus’ Histories because all that matters to him is the text itself and the literary persona (!). It’s equally uncommon for NT scholars to have only passing familiarity with other Greek dialects beyond the NT, epistolography, knowledge of NT papyri though not documentary papyri or the sense of the discipline as a whole, or a sense of the flow of Roman social, economic, and administrative history and the transformation of the empire from, say, 60 BC to 200 CE, though particularly the eastern provinces. The difference I think is that classicists more often willfully avoid the contextual data, whereas NT scholars are just unfamiliar with it (which is an important difference). Both tend to be absorbed by their texts and a small set of data related to the questions they ask of them. The same argument can sometimes be said for archaeologists and historians, though I think it holds less true. The reason I think is that ancient historians are so desperate for any data we can find, we’ll use just about anything. But by comparison to other historians of other periods, we definitely have our own other deficiencies.

It is legitimate to pose the question of how “general” is necessary if one primarily intends to write on Paul or Callimachus. Fair enough. Surely that can vary. Though what bothers me about questions like that is that it tends to come from an avoidist mentality–or in the worst cases, pure ignorance. Having a fair knowledge of the world around our literature doesn’t just help ensure that our work is accurate and not misguided–it doesn’t just guide our work to make sure we’re not coming up with the banal, anachronistic, or bizarre. More than that, it also provides insight that can help further how we pose our questions, information that can help refine and supplement or research, and lead to new discoveries. For that reason, I think we would also benefit from spending considerable energy becoming conversant across disciplines as well.

June 22, 2009 Posted by | Uncategorized | 3 Comments

Daniel Kirk on Rom. 3.21-26

Daniel Kirk over on sibboleth poses some interesting questions about Romans 3.21-6 which I thought it might be fun to interact with. See the questions on his site–it would make things a little long to post them here too.

1) I think the subjective genitive approach (faith in Christ) could work. The conundrum God has placed himself in, as Paul outlines it, is that on the one hand he has promised certain covenant blessing to his people, yet on the other promised not to to grant it if they’re unwarranting. The question is how does God get himself out of this bind. One way one can read this passage is that Paul is saying that trusting Christ is the instrumental link that makes it possible for his people to be “justified,” and therefore deserving of blessing. That sounds like an awful lot of dots to connect, but given what the text says I’m not sure it’s that out there. Anyhoo, I remain undecided to the matter (and indifferent).

2) Dunn I think says neither as I recall. They’re both different metaphors for describing the same thing, which is one way of explaining why Paul slides so easily from the covenant metaphor to the sacrificial metaphor to the slave metaphor, and then back again. What do you think? Makes sense to me.

3) I’ve thought about this some. I’ve thought the only way one could justifiably translate ἱλαστήριος as “propitiation” is if one desires to simplify the fact that the mercy seat is where God “meets” the sacrificial act of sprinkling blood, and therefore the people are “cleansed,” etc. I think that’s ok, in theory. But it entirely mutes a whole set of sacrificial dimensions to Christ’s death that I think Paul is trying to make.

4) I don’t think so. But I confess the whole search for parallels where πίστις χριστοῦ is clearly objective or subjective strikes me as a little weird. Grammatically it could still go either way, and even if we found a few it wouldn’t necessarily add weight to one reading or the other. No?

5) Good point. I think so too.

6) Yeah I think so.

7) Ditto.

June 19, 2009 Posted by | Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Ancient Economy Seminar


May 26-Jun 12 witnessed an ancient economy “workshop” here at Columbia, funded by William Harris and the Mellon Foundation, and officially under the auspices of the Center for the Ancient Mediterranean (CAM). Participating were young scholars from around the world–only a few Americans–all working on a variety of topics of economic import: slavery, piracy/pillaging, law, risk management, trade, fuel, and (in my case) the credit economy. It was a fantastic group of people, a real pleasure to work with.

The seminar consisted of two main parts: The first was daily lectures/discussions about various topics in modern economic theory: laws of supply and demand, comparative advantage, quantifying labor, Malthus, Keynes, etc. Most of it was very basic stuff that anybody doing economic history needs to know. The second was regular discussions about the personal work of the participants: each of us was required to prepare a written paper, present it, and undergo trial by fire for roughly an hour each. This second part was, in my opinion, the most informative. It presented the opportunity to learn about specific issues of research that I really knew little about.


One thing that became increasingly apparent to me as days turned to weeks is how paramount it is for economists who foray into ancient history to fully understand the particularities and limitations of ancient data sets. It is too easy to, for instance, impose modern assumptions about price formation, market integration, or (in my case) credit and banking, and consequently arrive at unworkable conclusions about how ancient economies and commerce functioned. On the flip side, however, it also became increasingly apparent that historians of the ancient economy must become familiar with not only basic economic theory and its limitations, but the basic statistics as well. Given the paucity of our data, it is essential to know methods by which one can test hypotheses, perform error analysis, calculate confidence intervals based on sample size, etc. This is required before we can draw conclusions about data trends and correlations, for instance.

The people were by far the most enjoyable aspect of the whole experience. Everyone was wonderful and a real joy to work with.

June 18, 2009 Posted by | Uncategorized | Leave a comment

My Top Five

Jared Calaway has tagged me with the 5 book meme: the 5 top books that have influenced my thinking the most, whether I actually liked them or not (…and he’s right, I do need a kick in the arse to blog: half the time I forget about this thing; the other half I can’t come up with anything to blog about. I’m not very good at this).

I’m guessing I should probably provide the classicist/roman historian perspective. But I’ve had a really weird journey from biblical studies, to jewish studies, and now to roman history. So I’ll try to chronicle that movement below, even though the books I’m reading right now are influencing me more than the past material. I imagine I’m like everyone else in having the problem of picking and choosing 5 when really there are about 100 that belong on this list in equal measure.

1) James Kugel. I entered to Westminster Seminary (z”l) a conservative evangelical, and reading Kugel’s work on the HB–particularly 2nd temple interp., wisdom lit., and rabbinic exegesis–forced me to reconsider many naive assumptions I had about the ancient world, the bible, and what being a religious thinker must mean (if its to mean anything). He’s impacted me personally as much as academically. Books that come to mind are: Traditions of the Bible, In Potiphar’s House, The Idea of Biblical Poetry, and How to Read the Bible (including the unpublished appendix 1 available here).

2) James H. Charlesworth, ed., The Messiah: Developments in Earliest Judaism and Christianity. This follows on the heels of Kugel. It’s an edited volume on various historical issues related to the history of Jewish messianology, Jesus, and sects. It was my first serious foray into early Jewish history and literature, which I would spend the next several years studying and which would also propel me to study rabbinics at JTS.

3) Former JTS advisor (soon to move to Columbia U.): Seth Schwartz. In my opinion, there is simply no one better at doing ancient Jewish history than Seth. By and large, the history of ancient Judaism has been dominated by textual study. Few have made a serious effort to integrate Judaism into the wider disciplines Hellenistic, Roman, or Babylonian history, art, and archaeology. Jewish history has stood on its own. Seth is one of the major exceptions. It was in his history classes where I was forced to engage scholars like Keith Hopkins, Nicholas Purcell, and Fergus Millar, as well as disciplines like economic history, papyrology, and Roman administrative history. And in fact, it was watching him in action–in addition to William Harris–that persuaded me that I *shouldn’t* do a PhD in ancient Judaism, but something broader like my current program (classical studies–a multidisciplinary history program) would be better preparation. All of Seth’s written work has impacted me variously, though none more than his Imperialism and Jewish Society, 200 BCE to 640 CE.

4) My current advisor: William V. Harris, who I might add has a new faculty pic up. Simply one of the smartest, most capable people I’ve ever met; a scholar’s scholar. Every book he’s written has changed the field in some substantial way–whether on Republican Italy, imperialism, literacy. Many of his articles have also had similar impact. He knows ancient data better than anyone I know and continues to know how to ask provocative, poignant questions. Moreover, William has been a dedicated patron, offering mounds of help, funding, and has always been available when I’ve needed him. I’ve been very fortunate. I won’t even bother listing works that have impacted me; just see his bibliography in the link above.

5) Craig Muldrew, The Economy of Obligation: The Culture of Credit and Social Relations in Early Modern England. This is a truly profound book. I’ve been doing a lot of work on the ancient economy this past year and have become convinced that much of the way historians conceive the relationship between coin, kind, and credit are either oversimplistic or entirely mistaken. Muldrew’s book, which has become a standard work in English economic history, is the most deeply thought through book I can ever remember reading, and is constantly a book I come back to as I continue to think through this very issue (despite its applicability to a different period). It will probably be a major foundation for my diss–directly or indirectly–which will be a social history of Roman credit. Muldrew’s work is also what convinced me to do one of my comps exams in medieval commerce rather than something strictly classical.

Anyway, who to tag.
Jenny Labenz, Mark Traphagen, Pete Enns, and I’ll think of the remaining later.

June 17, 2009 Posted by | Uncategorized | 6 Comments

Britainization of Justin, pt. 2

Oxford_2008029 If Oxford University has a main drag, this is it:  Cornmarket Street.  I live about a block from this intersection.  You can see in the distance Christ Church; its campus is gargantuan.  A significant number of the stores on this street and its side-streets are pretty posh–so for instance, I found some shoe stores selling selling dress shoes for the meager sum of 360 pounds; watches for 1200 pounds, etc.  Nice stuff (!!) though–my favorite was the Whiskey Shop on Turl st.  There are only 2 disappointing things about this street:  First, there are 2 Starbucks, a Mickey D’s, Burger King, and KFC.  The first in that list is particularly detestable since I’m firmly convinced that the spread of Starbucks in the US has single handedly kept Americans from appreciating good espresso drinks (yes I’m disgruntled).  So I’ve had this nascent fear that the arrival of Starbucks might signal the decline in “taste” (ridiculous, I know, but that’s the fear it conjured).  But still all 4 are pretty tasteless, and as an American it makes me pretty embarrassed, guilty.  Second, Cornmarket is suprisingly more crowded than Time Square during the week days; having come from NYC this isn’t so bad, though I was hoping for a bit of a break from the urban grind.  It can also be quite noisy at night.  All that said, I have to say I really like the neighborhood.  I like it even more when I visit my colleagues north of the university in Jericho though–things are cheaper, it’s a bit homier, kinda reminds me of West Philly actually. 

Having a great time.  My research this week took an unexpected turn.  I’ve actually been focusing my work on landholding distribution and relative size of various districts of the Hermopolite nome in Egypt, which are really demography issues more than agriculture ones.  There is a large set of debates about how many people lived in Egypt, what the population density was, how much agricultural produce could it yield and (therefore) what as the aggregate wealth of the province and the wealth distribution among its inhabitants.  The reason so many of us are interested in this debate is that above any other region of the Graeco-Roman world, Egypt has plentiful data to really give us a flavor for what “life” was like.  

This has basically meant I’ve been following through many calculations of important articles to understand the math and assumptions scholars make, and consequently where improvement needs to be made.  It’s basically meant that I’ve had to start learning stats and macroeconomics in a much more serious way than I ever have and trying to give serious consideration to what are most reliable data is and why.  It’s been quite fruitful in many ways.  What’s been particularly illuminating to me has been how fragile our calculations are of so many figures, even our best estimates.   I’ve encountered few estimates for which one couldn’t fairly argue +/- 20%, which is a lot.  That’s pretty dissatisfying.  Previously I’ve thought that for better or for worse our best socio-economic models would have to be built from the ground up rather than the top down–that is, from the data itself rather than theoretical concepts about ancient demography and economics–; though given the size of this margin of error, I’m starting to look for top-down ideas that might give us better ground to stand on. 

July 16, 2008 Posted by | Uncategorized | 3 Comments

The Britainization of Justin

Oxford_2008008 The title of this post is borrowed from the blog of Mark Goodacre’s wife Emily; it was started when Mark acquired his NT position at Duke, having left the University of Birmingham.  My situation only resembles theirs:  I, being a Classical Studies graduate student at Columbia University in NY, have begun a long-term project based at Oxford University.  But mine is only a research affiliation that is likely to last the next several years; it’s not a “job.”  In any event, as such I’m here staying at Braesenose College (or, it’s annex actually, Frewin Court) for this month of July. 

In any event, I’ve decided to chronicle my time here via this ill-updated blog.  I intend to drop a few lines from time to time on my reactions to this new environment, as well as my research.  Incidentally, I count this as my first real “trip” to Europe.  I’ve visited the airports of Milan and Madrid, and even spent several days on the European side of Istanbul, but (obviously) they don’t exactly count. 

As a first note, I suppose, a little about my research:  The Oxford Roman Economy Project (or OXREP as we call it) intends to do a semi-comprehensive analysis of the Roman economy of the whole Roman empire in the span of six years, with a different topic each year.  This year is year two and the topic is agriculture; last year it was demography.  As for me, my own work, generally speaking, has started with the desire to mathematically quantify and model agricultural trade within Egypt.  I’ve been researching a new branch of modern economics called New Economic Geography, hoping that it might offer some insight on related questions.  We’ll see what we learn. 

July 16, 2008 Posted by | Uncategorized | 2 Comments

Bush on Masada

bush During his visit to Israel, on May 15th President Bush gave a speech honoring the nation’s 60th birthday.

In this speech, however, I was struck by this awkward line:

“Citizens of Israel: Masada shall never fall again….”

Um…unless I’m missing something, Masada is still kinda fallen….

May 15, 2008 Posted by | Uncategorized | 3 Comments