Apr 122017

In Western Christian tradition today goes by a number of names including  Holy Wednesday and Good Wednesday. It can also be called Spy Wednesday because of certain events mentioned in the gospels. Unfortunately the Synoptic Gospels and John’s Gospel diverge considerably on the order and timing of the major events of Holy Week although they generally agree concerning the events themselves with some minor variations as to particulars.

According to Mark (12:3-10) on the Wednesday before his death Jesus was in Bethany in the evening:

3 While he was in Bethany, reclining at the table in the home of Simon the Leper, a woman came with an alabaster jar of very expensive perfume, made of pure nard. She broke the jar and poured the perfume on his head. 4 Some of those present were saying indignantly to one another, “Why this waste of perfume? 5 It could have been sold for more than a year’s wages and the money given to the poor.” And they rebuked her harshly. 6 “Leave her alone,” said Jesus. “Why are you bothering her? She has done a beautiful thing to me.  7 The poor you will always have with you, and you can help them any time you want. But you will not always have me. 8 She did what she could. She poured perfume on my body beforehand to prepare for my burial. 9 Truly I tell you, wherever the gospel is preached throughout the world, what she has done will also be told, in memory of her.”

10 Then Judas Iscariot, one of the Twelve, went to the chief priests to betray Jesus to them. 11 They were delighted to hear this and promised to give him money. So he watched for an opportunity to hand him over.

The chronology in John is very different.  There the event happens before the triumphal entry on Palm Sunday, but in some Western liturgical traditions Mark’s chronology is accepted and gives us the name Spy Wednesday where “spy” means essentially “ambush” or “betrayal.” Two events are linked in Mark’s narrative – the anointing of Jesus and Judas’ decision to betray him – but in John the relationship is much clearer, and some added details have caused a lot of speculation.

In John it is Judas who complains about the waste of the perfume but he is accused of hypocrisy in that he didn’t want to help the poor but himself. Seeing the lost opportunity enrich himself he goes to the Sanhedrin seeking a bribe for betraying Jesus’ whereabouts. The general point is that Jesus preached openly in the daytime and generally infuriated the authorities with his message which was harshly critical of the status quo from which they all benefited. They wanted to get rid of him but were afraid to arrest him in broad daylight surrounded by a sympathetic mob.  In the evenings, however, he seemingly vanished into thin air and no one, with the exception of his closest friends, knew where he went. To seize him in the evening one of his friends would have to turn on him. Judas obliged.

The woman who poured expensive perfume on Jesus is not given a name in Mark but is called Mary in John.  Luke places this whole event at a different time in Jesus life, and characterizes the woman as a sinner. Putting these diverse details together leads a few commentators to declare not only that the woman, named Mary, was a sinner, but that she was none other than Mary Magdalene. This identification is extremely problematic. Mary Magdalene comes to the fore during and after the crucifixion, it is true. She is highly prominent, especially because she is said to be the first witness to the resurrection, and the first evangelist. She is mentioned in the gospels more than most of the apostles by name. Medieval scholars conflated her with the Mary who anointed Jesus, and taking the theme from Luke, suggests she was a reformed prostitute. These are completely unwarranted conclusions. There is not a shred of evidence from the gospels that Mary Magdalene was a reformed prostitute, nor that she was the Mary who anointed Jesus. Mary (Miriam) was a very common name.

Scholars are also deeply divided as to why Judas betrayed Jesus. The darker side of all of this, that is rarely raised, is that the Romans executed him, not the Sanhedrin, but the gospels all go out of their way to blame the Sanhedrin for starting the whole process. Hence in history one of the crimes laid at the door of Jews by Christians, fueling anti-Semitism, is that they (not the Romans) killed Jesus, and so must pay for their sins.  That narrative works for the gospel writers because they, thus, avoid appearing anti-Roman at a time when being publicly anti-Roman got you killed. So, Judas betrays Jesus to the Sanhedrin, not to the Roman authorities. Judas was greedy and was looking for a bribe, so he sold out Jesus for 30 pieces of silver. What really happened?

Nothing really adds up here. Why would a trusted member of Jesus’ inner circle betray him at all. We could start with the idea that there were 12 apostles.  Were there really? There were 12 tribes of Israel so there is some clear symbolism being promoted here. But “the twelve” are a bit of a shadowy lot. The gospels do not agree concerning the names of all of them for starters, and clearly some are more central than others. What do you remember about Thaddeus, for example, or Bartholomew? Judas Iscariot is identified as the treasurer of the group (or keeper of the purse). Otherwise there’s nothing to single him out prior to his betrayal.

One idea that springs off the top of my head is that there was a genuine inner circle – Peter, James, and John – and a lot of hangers on who came and went, some closer than others. Judas was one of these fringe elements who was intrigued by Jesus’ message but without a lot of conviction in it.  There must have been a lot of this type – especially men. What is clear from the gospels, as well as Paul’s letters, is that the backbone of Jesus’ following were women, not men. This makes the scene of Jesus’ anointing at dinner all the more poignant. The guys just, more or less, sit around and do nothing while a woman makes a profound sacrifice of love and devotion (and one of the supposedly faithful men sneaks off and sells him down the river).  This mirrors the general state of affairs in Judah (and the Roman empire) of the day, and is still the dominant posture of many Christian denominations. They lived in, and we live in, unabashedly patriarchal societies. Was one of the major problems that Jesus had with the powers that be – Jewish and Roman – that he had a very large female following in a culture dominated by men? Hard to say, but I suspect so.

Today’s putative events took place, as did so many of Jesus’ telling moments, at the meal table. I’ve talked quite a bit about the typical cuisine of ancient Judah, so you can pick from the many standard ingredients: lentils, olives, grapes, fish (of course), as well as eggs, flatbread and the like. Meat would not have been common, and, naturally, I’ll save lamb for Sunday. The ingredient that springs to mind for today is figs because of another minor (and inscrutable) event of Holy Week. On the way to the Temple one day Jesus is hungry but when he inspects a fig tree for fruit is has none (because it is not the right season). So he curses it, and on returning it has withered. What did the tree do wrong? Would you curse an apple tree in March because it bore no apples? About the best commentators can come up with is that Jesus was symbolically cursing people who are all talk (showy foliage) and no action (fruit). Maybe so, but figs are great – dried or fresh.

When they are in season I slice fresh figs and eat them on bread with sharp cheese. The combination is unbeatable. For a truly great sandwich place figs and cheese between slices of whole grain bread and grill the sandwich on both sides until the bread is nicely toasted and the cheese melted and gooey.

Aug 262016


Today is the Roman Catholic feast of Melchizedek, a shadowy and obscure king mentioned in the Hebrew Bible whose tale has subsequently been elaborated upon in all kinds of mystical and quasi-historical literature, almost entirely because of his name (and his association with bread and wine).

Melchizedek , Melkisetek, or Malki Tzedek (Hebrew: מלכי־צדק; Amharic: መልከ ጼዴቅ malkī-ṣeḏeq; Armenian: Մելքիսեդեք, Melkisetek), is mentioned in Genesis 14 as the king of Salem and a priest of El Elyon (“God most high”) who brings out bread and wine and blesses Abram (later Abraham) and El Elyon.

In Chazalic literature – specifically Targum Jonathan, Targum Yerushalmi, and the Babylonian Talmud – the name מלכי־צדק is given as a nickname title for Shem, the son of Noah, and ancestor of Middle Eastern peoples, thus predating Abraham as an ancestor.

In Christianity, according to the Epistle to the Hebrews, Jesus as Christ is identified as “a priest forever in the order of Melchizedek,” that is, a Jewish High Priest.


I will spare you all of the endless conjectures about who Melchizedek was, but I am a little bit fascinated by some linguistic riddles associated with him. These all stem from the fact that ancient Hebrew was written almost entirely without vowels. There are characters for long /i/ and long /o/ but the rest you have to fill in yourself. Most of the time the text is clear without vowels, but you can make mistakes, and some words are deliberately ambiguous. Go here https://www.bookofdaystales.com/international-translation-dayst-jerome/ for an explanation of why Greek translations of the Hebrew Torah mistakenly assert that Moses had horns.

The name Melchizedek in Hebrew is made of the two elements melek “king” and ṣedeq “righteous(ness).” With the addition of the enclitic possessive pronoun (-ī), malk-ī means “my king” so that the name literally translates as “my king is righteous(ness)” (or it could also be “my king is Ṣedeq” where “Ṣedeq” is a proper noun). For the moment let’s just say that Melchizedek was the guy’s name. Unfortunately the text explaining where he was from does not make things easier. He is called king of Salem, but the place is written as שלם (s-l-m) which you can read in all manner of ways by adding different vowels – Salem or Salim, for example. Things are further complicated by the fact that the letter ש can be pronounced /s/ or /sh/, so the word could be pronounced “shalom,” which means “peace.” Thus, the text could be saying that Melchizedek was the king of peace, not of a place.

I can read ancient Hebrew well enough, but my competence stops short of historical linguistics, and I can’t contribute anything original to philological debates. Nonetheless, I can provide a few conjectures. My typically matter-of-fact Biblical exegesis leads me to say that the Melchizedek episode in Genesis comes from an ancient oral tradition, and the redactors of Genesis had a reason to include it. But we don’t now know what that reason was, and speculation (while typically Rabbinic) is a waste of time – unless you have a lot of time on your hands. Genesis is made up of all manner of source materials from different eras and places cobbled together to form a book, and scholars have spent decades sifting through, and sorting out the different strands. My own analysis of Genesis (in a forthcoming book, The Genesis Option), avoids that way of looking at the book. Source criticism is not my drug of choice.

Where this place called s-l-m, that was Melchizedek’s kingdom, is located, if it is a place at all, is a puzzle. There is no ancient site in the Middle East that we know of called Salem. Genesis 33:18, might give us a clue, though:

And Jacob came to Shalem, a city of Shechem, which is in the land of Canaan, when he came from Padanaram; and pitched his tent before the city.

The ancient town of Salim is normally taken to be this location. It is mentioned in the Gospel of John 3:23:

And John also was baptizing in Ænon near to Salim [Σαλείμ], because there was much water there: and they came, and were baptized.


In 1517, Salim was incorporated into the Ottoman Empire with the rest of Palestine. In 1596, it appeared in Ottoman tax registers as being in the Nahiya of Jabal Qubal of the Liwa of Nablus. It had a population of 42 households, all Muslim. The villagers paid taxes on wheat, barley, summer crops, olives, and goats or beehives, and a press for olives or grapes.

French explorer Victor Guérin came to the village in May 1870, after walking through fields of olives, figs and almond trees. He found a village 200 people, in ancient houses. A dozen cisterns in the village were dry, so the women had to fetch water from a stream, called Ain Salim, about 1 km NNW of the village. In 1882, the Palestine Exploration Fund’s Survey of Western Palestine described Salim as a small village, but evidently ancient, surrounded by olive-trees and with two springs to the north.

Archeology dates Salim to the Middle Bronze Age (the time classically associated with Abraham), and shows that it was originally a Canaanite village later taken over by Israelites. It doesn’t seem to have ever had much historical significance, however.


If you want to sift through the mountains of mystical and magical speculations about Melchizedek, knock yourself out. You’re on your own. Clearly the image of his gifts of bread and wine to Abraham suggested to early Christian authors that the narrative was a prefigurement of the Last Supper, and ultimately the Eucharist (holy communion). I’m going to leave that alone too. But a gift of food and drink does lead to some thoughts about cooking.

I have given a fair number of recipes here already from the ancient region of Israel and Palestine. You’ve got lots to pick from with lentils, wine, olive oil, and goat meat. I’ll focus on figs today. The fig tree is the third tree to be mentioned by name in the Hebrew Bible. The first is the Tree of life and the second is the Tree of the knowledge of good and evil (NOT an apple tree). Then Adam and Eve used the leaves of the fig tree to sew garments for themselves after the Fall, when they realized that they were naked (Genesis 3:7).

In Deuteronomy, the Promised Land is described as “a land of wheat and barley, of vines and fig trees and pomegranates, a land of olive oil and honey; a land where you will eat food without scarcity, in which you will not lack anything;” (Deuteronomy 8:8-10). During Solomon’s reign Judah and Israel, from Dan to Beersheba, lived in safety, each man “under his own vine and fig tree” (1 Kings 4:25), an indicator of national wealth and prosperity. 2 Kings 18 states that Hezekiah rebelled against the King of Assyria, of whom he had become a vassal. In response, the Assyrian commander attempted to sway the army of Jerusalem by offering deserters each his own vine and fig tree.

Figs are in full season here in Mantua, and I’ve been doing a lot with them, raw and cooked. Here is an image of one of my recent impromptu ideas, figs and cheese on bread as an open-faced sandwich.


To be more authentically Middle Eastern you’ll need to use goat or ewe’s cheese and flat bread, but I’m sure you can figure it out. The sweetness of the figs and the slight sourness of goat cheese make a great combination, especially added to the earthiness of whole wheat.

Jan 052016


Today is the birthday (1906) of Kathleen Kenyon noted British archeologist whose digs in Jericho and Jerusalem helped change the pattern and aims of archeology in the Near East. Her book, Digging Up Jericho (1957), made her a celebrity in Britain and subsequently in Europe when it was translated into multiple languages.


She was the eldest daughter of Sir Frederic Kenyon, biblical scholar and later director of the British Museum. Her grandfather, John Robert Kenyon, was a lawyer and Fellow of All Souls College, and her great-great-grandfather was the politician and lawyer Lloyd Kenyon, 1st Baron Kenyon. She grew up in Bloomsbury in London, in a house attached to the British Museum, with her mother, Amy Kenyon, and sister Nora Kenyon. Kenyon’s father encouraged wide reading and independent study and in later years she noted that her father’s position at the British Museum was particularly helpful in her self education. Kenyon was an excellent student, winning awards at school and particularly excelling in history. She studied first at St Paul’s Girls’ School, where she was Head Girl, before winning an Exhibition to read History at Somerville College, Oxford. While at Oxford, Kenyon won a Blue in hockey and became the first female president of the Oxford University Archaeological Society. She graduated in 1929 and began a life-long career in archaeology.


Working in archaeology was first suggested to Kenyon by Margery Fry, librarian at Somerville College. After graduation Kenyon’s first field experience was as a photographer for the pioneering excavations at Great Zimbabwe in 1929, led by Gertrude Caton-Thompson. Returning to England, Kenyon joined the team of Mortimer Wheeler and his wife Tessa Wheeler on their excavation of the Romano-British settlement of Verulamium (St Albans). Working there each summer between 1930 and 1935, Kenyon was schooled by Mortimer Wheeler in the discipline of meticulously controlled and recorded stratigraphic excavation, which later led to her own refinements – a vital component in her own work. Wheeler entrusted her with the direction of the excavation of the Roman theatre.

As a small aside I have to mention the 1950s television show “Animal Vegetable or Mineral” where three distinguished archaeologists, under the chairmanship of Glyn Daniel, attempted to identify ancient artifacts, presented each week by a different museum. Mortimer Wheeler was a regular panelist and Kenyon appeared once. I can’t imagine such a show being produced these days – archeologists sitting around discussing the details of pots, sculptures and such !!! Impossible. Wheeler was famous for announcing now and again, “I was there when they dug it up.” Here’s a sample – absolutely hilarious.


In the years 1931 to 1934 Kenyon worked simultaneously at Samaria, then under the administration of the British Mandate for Palestine, with John Crowfoot and Grace Crowfoot. There she cut a stratigraphic trench across the summit of the mound and down the northern and southern slopes, exposing the Iron II to the Roman period stratigraphic sequence of the site. In addition to providing crucial dating material for the Iron Age stratigraphy of Palestine, she obtained key stratified data for the study of Eastern terra sigilata ware.


In 1934 Kenyon was closely associated with the Wheelers in the foundation of the Institute of Archaeology of University College London. From 1936 to 1939 she carried out important excavations at the Jewry Wall in the city of Leicester. These were published in the Illustrated London News (1937) with pioneering reconstruction drawings by the artist Alan Sorrell whom she had happened to notice sketching her dig.

During the Second World War, Kenyon served as Divisional Commander of the Red Cross in Hammersmith, London, and later as Acting Director and Secretary of the Institute of Archaeology of the University of London. After the war, she excavated in Southwark, at The Wrekin, Shropshire and elsewhere in Britain, as well as at Sabratha, a Roman city in Libya. As a member of the Council of the British School of Archaeology in Jerusalem (BSAJ), Kenyon was involved in the efforts to reopen the School after the hiatus of the Second World War. In January 1951 she travelled to the Transjordan and undertook excavations in the West Bank at Jericho (Tell es-Sultan) on behalf of the BSAJ.


Her Initial findings were first viewed by the public in the Dome of Discovery at the Festival of Britain 1951 with a reconstruction drawing by Alan Sorrell. Her work at Jericho, from 1952 until 1958, made her world famous and established a lasting legacy in the archaeological methodology of the Levant. Ground-breaking discoveries concerning the Neolithic cultures of the Levant were made in this ancient settlement. Her excavation of the Early Bronze Age walled city and the external cemeteries of the end of the Early Bronze Age, together with her analysis of the stratified pottery of these periods established her as the leading authority on that period. Kenyon focused her attention on the absence of certain Cypriot pottery at City IV, arguing for an older destruction date than that of her predecessors. Jericho was recognized as the oldest continuously occupied settlement in history because of her discoveries. At the same time she also completed the publication of the excavations at Samaria. Her volume, Samaria Sebaste III: The Objects, appeared in 1957. Having completed her excavations at Jericho in 1958, Kenyon excavated in Jerusalem from 1961 to 1967, concentrating on the ‘City of David’ to the immediate south of the Temple Mount.

Although Kenyon had no doubt the sites she excavated were linked to the Old Testament narrative she nevertheless drew attention to inconsistencies, concluding, for example, that Solomon’s “stables” at Megiddo were totally impractical for holding horses, and that Jericho fell long before Joshua’s arrival. Consequently, Kenyon’s work has been cited to support the Minimalist School of Biblical Archaeology.


Kenyon’s work is now seen as transitional between old-school Biblical archeology and modern Near Eastern archeology. The goal of the former was simply to support Biblical narratives and, in consequence, focused on sites mentioned in the Bible. Modern Near Eastern archeology broke away from a focus on Biblical sites to view the Levant as worthy of study independently of Biblical history. As such we now have a much broader view of the historical cultures of the region as context for Biblical analysis. One of the great casualties of this method is the whole Exodus and Conquest of Israel sequence, which is completely unsupported by archeology (not to mention the absence of evidence for the kingships of David and Solomon). Kenyon hastened the demise of classic Biblical archeology although she still had one foot in that camp.

Kenyon was in her last year as principal of St Hugh’s college, Oxford in 1973 when I was finished with required studies in theology and could spend some time on optional papers. I could have asked to have been taken on by Kenyon as my tutor, but chose instead to focus on Byzantine church history. One of my college mates did work with Kenyon and, as I had suspected, spent a term identifying and memorizing potsherds. I knew this would be his fate having already read Archaeology in the Holy Land which is precious little more than page upon page of pen and ink drawings of assemblages with attendant dates. It took me decades to recover. Nowadays I understand their importance, but I leave the meticulous work to the experts and simply draw on their conclusions. As it happens, Byzantine church history was just as tiresome in that it was taught by an absolute dullard with not an original thought in his brain.

From 1948 to 1962 Kenyon lectured in Levantine Archaeology at the Institute of Archaeology, University College London, her teaching complementing her excavations at Jericho and Jerusalem. In 1962, she was appointed Principal of St Hugh’s College, Oxford, and retired in 1973 whereupon she was appointed a Dame of the British Empire.

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Jericho was known in antiquity for a number of products including olives and dates – timeless products enjoyed as much today as thousands of years ago. I suggest making a plate of foods associated with the region. I do this for a quick light meal. The centerpiece can be flatbread with yoghurt and olives, to which you can add goat cheese, dates, figs, and even a pomegranate for good luck.