Tag Archives: Oxford

European Seminar on Advanced Jewish Studies

I had dinner last night with about thirty people who are in some way or another involved with the European Seminar on Advanced Jewish Studies. The seminars are being held at Oxford this year, with two different topics. Alison Salvesen is coordinating “Greek Scripture and the Rabbis,” and Joanna Weinberg is coordinating “The Reading of Hebrew and Jewish Texts in the Early Modern Period.”

I particularly enjoyed speaking with Tessa Rajak, who is incredibly fun, and a young scholar named Reinhart Ceulemans, from Leuven, who Alison Salvesen said was the smartest person she’s ever met. Emanuel Tov arrives at the manor today, and Anneli Aejmelaeus should arrive next week.

Jewish Art and Dialoguing with Christians

I recently returned from attending tonight’s David Patterson Seminar at the Oxford Centre for Hebrew and Jewish Studies. The presenter was Aaron Rosen, a colorful Oxford fellow with a DPhil from Cambridge who lectures here on modern Jewish art. He has joined our small group of masters students at the local pubs a few times and and recently published a book entitled Imagining Jewish Art: Encounters with the Masters in Chagall, Guston, and Kitaj. Tonight’s lecture focused on the use of Christian symbols in the art of Chagall, Rothko, and Kitaj.

Particularly interesting to me was the work of Chagall, who, according to this presentation, seems to have appropriated the crucifixion as a symbol of Jewish suffering during the Holocaust, with the resurrection a sign of hope for a rebirth of Jewish self-identity. He also used it as an “indicment against Christianity,” according to Rosen. The painting below, White Crucifixion, is intended to criticize the Christian use of the crucifixion as a source of anti-Semitism. Aaron tells us the man in the lower left with the white plaque on his chest originally had “Ich bin Juden” written on it, but it was removed in an effort to make the painting accessible to a wider audience, and perhaps even specifically to Christians. I found the talk captivating and was totally unaware of this dynamic of Jewish art in the last century. If you enjoy art and have never been exposed to Jewish art before, I recommend checking out his book.

John Day on Berossus’ Account of the Flood

I sat in a tiny classroom today on the upper floor of Oxford’s Theology Faculty building with Stephanie Dalley, Nicolas Wyatt, and several others, listening to John Day read a paper he will be publishing shortly. The paper treated the flood account of the Babylonian priest Berossus and its relationship to P’s account from Genesis. Day’s argument was basically that four connections lead us to conclude that both accounts were drawing (at vastly different time periods) from some of the same source material, which was not utilized by older Mesopotamian accounts, like Gilgamesh or Atrahasis:

1 – Berossus and P both give precise dates for the beginning of the flood (P’s is two days after Berossus’). Early scholarship presumes P is using an autmnal calendar when it actually has the new year in the spring, and so missed the connection.

2 – Berossus and P both have the ark landing in modern Armenia (Prof. Day went on a tangent about the fact that P mentions the region of Ararat, not a specific mountain). The other accounts have the ark landing further southeast along the current border between Iran and Iraq.

3 – Berossus and P both describe the ark as having a shape similar to a real boat, rather than the older accounts’ perfect cube.

4 – The flood hero is cited as the last in a list of ten long-lived ante-diluvial men. Enoch and Berossus’ equivalent Emmeduranki are both 7th on the list. The other lists have varied numbers of heros.

Some took issue with Prof. Day’s paper, wondering, for instance, what to do with J’s section of the flood narrative and the similarities with Berossus, what to do with the fact that Berossus’ list of ante-diluvial heros may simply have two different spellings of a single name (and so not really add to 10), and so forth. Prof. Day seemed happy to take correction and was cordial throughou. I thought it was an interesting look into how these scholars interact with each other in a setting like this.


My Oxford matriculation was Saturday. The ceremony was relatively short. Part of it was in Latin. It was held in the Sheldonian Theatre, which is shown in the photo (not my own picture). I was on the ground level. Stop.

Maimonides at the Bodleian

Maimonides' SignatureYesterday I went on a unique tour of Oxford’s Bodleian Library. The tour was organized and guided by a gentleman who works both with the Oxford Centre for Hebrew and Jewish Studies and with the Bodleian manuscript collection. It was an interesting look at the Jewish and Hebrew holdings of the library, but our guide became visibly excited when he began pulling out much older manuscripts. We looked at some Geniza manuscripts as well as a Maimonides autograph (the guide was enthralled with his erratic Judeo-Arabic). His favorite piece, however, was Maimonides’ premier Mishna text, which was evidently the standard against which he checked all subsequent versions. The text was written by a scribe, but it has a short signature at the end, which is shown in the accompanying photo. See if you can read what it says.

Norman Solomon’s The Talmud: A Selection

I attended a David Patterson Seminar last night given by Rabbi Dr. Norman Solomon which was also a belated book roll-out/signing for his recent Penguin publication The Talmud: A Selection. The lecture was aimed a little more at those unacquainted with the Talmud, but he discussed some of the issues with which he struggled to produce a selection of Talmudic material, and translate it¬†intelligibly¬†into English, that would give an accurate overall impression of the Talmud with only about 5% of the texts. On the aesthetic side of things, his book uses plain text for the Gemara, bold for the Mishna, and small caps for biblical quotations, just to make it easy for the reader to distinguish. It’s a handy little volume and I recommend it to anyone looking for a good introduction to the Talmud.

John Day on Genesis 1-2

For anyone in or around the Oxford area, next Monday at 2:30 in the faculty of theology John Day will be giving a lecture on Genesis 1 and 2 as part of Oxford’s Old Testament seminar. Should be a good time.

Oxford’s Medieval Jewish Quarter

I took a tour today of Oxford’s medieval Jewish quarter guided by a colorful woman from New Hampshire named Pam Manix. Pam is pretty much the world’s current authority on this topic, and it was an exciting tour. She has an article up about Oxford’s Medieval Jewish past here. I took some pictures and thought I’d share some of them along with a brief history.

The Jewish quarter made up almost a fourth of the city (almost everything below High Street and Queen’s Street, and west of Magpie Lane here) and constituted everything downstream (or down-sewage-canal) from the city’s tanneries and slaughterhouses. Scholars conclude that mercantile Jews first came to Oxford with William the Conqueror. The first textual mention is from the chronicles of Brother Nigellus from 1141 when King Stephen burned down Aaron f. Isaac’s home and threatened to burn down the entire Jewish quarter if they did not fund his campaign against Empress Matilda. These were rough times, but when Matilda’s son, Henry II, became king, things lightened up a bit. Things lightened up so much, however, that numerous Jewish fortunes were made from lending money on credit, which caused a lot of hostility among the strapped English. The second richest man in Britain, next to the king, was a Jew from Lincoln named Aaron.

The following picture shows a wall, parts of which are original to the 13th century Jewish quarter, and contemporary houses from just north of the quarter.

At about this time the whole Blood Libel hoax was being perpetuated, and, among other things, the practice of money lending was forbidden. At one point, the only thing Jews were allowed to do was operate as pawnbrokers.

The following photo is of the rebuilt 13th century home of Moses of Oxford. The restoration is based off of the original foundation, but shows several historical layers. In the left corner you can see the original wall of the house next door, which actually uses the original entry, sitting five feet underground.

In the last half of the 13th century things were getting very bad for the Jews. They were in dire economic straits and crusader zeal was putting more pressure on them. Many resorted to coin clipping (clipping the unminted portion off of coins), which resulted in the hanging of hundreds of Jews across England when the crown got wind of it. Finally, in 1290, the Jews were expelled from England, only to settle in France and then be expelled from there in less than 20 years.

The next picture is of the grounds at Christ Church College, which is entirely built upon the southern half of the old Jewish quarters. Next is “Deadman’s Walk,” which is so named because it was the original road that went to the Jewish cemetery near the river. Somehow the name managed to stay in place even after the Botanic Gardens and Magdalen College were built on top before the Jews were expelled. Pam tells us the wall along the left is partially original.

Yarnton Manor

I have a college orientation at 8 in the morning at Wolfson, but it’s 4 am and I can’t sleep. I took a couple pictures of the grounds yesterday and thought I’d post them.

We have the top floor of this nice little house. A wonderful German couple lives on the bottom floor and has a car (you can see it poking out from behind the house). Today I knew real terror as I rode on the left side of a car on the left side of the rode darting around buses and cyclists in Oxford on streets not much wider than my waist.

This is our tiny little kitchen. It came stocked with a day’s worth of essentials, including a kilo of sugar and an odd grain-ish filled package that resembled an elongated brick that evidently turns into breakfast cereal if you shred it into a bowl and add milk. I saw the kitchen of an unmarried Oxford student today and instantly became very proud of our little slice of heaven. Everything in the UK is tiny and yet, somehow, more expensive.

This is the view from our kitchen window. It doesn’t look like much, but it’s pretty nice when you’re doing the dishes. The buildings in the background are other parts of the manor, which was built in the 16th century and was the ancestral home of the Spencer family. There is a church next to the house that has foundations dating to the 12th century and a graveyard that will be loads of fun on Halloween.

We went exploring a little yesterday before it started to rain (they swore it hadn’t rained in weeks) and found a series of very old stairs in the garden behind the manor. Aryn loves the garden.

Oxford Septuagint Seminar

I am really looking forward to a seminar that will be taking place within throwing distance of my little cottage on the grounds of the Oxford Centre for Hebrew and Jewish Studies. The seminar is entitled Greek Scripture and the Rabbis, and it will run from January to June, 2010. The public will be able to attend weekly seminars. Here’s the blurb:

Up to the present, views of Scripture in Judaism from antiquity to the rise of Islam have been shaped by the fact that rabbinic literature is written in Hebrew and Aramaic, even though many Jews in the eastern Mediterranean and their religious leaders knew only Greek. Even the recent Cambridge History of Judaism (2006) failed to include a chapter on the role of Greek language and literature. The project will be an investigation of Jewish Greek versions of the Bible among Jewish communities of the first to sixth centuries CE, both from rabbinic sources and from internal indicators in what remains of the translations themselves.

So far they are expecting the following participants: Emanuel Tov, Philip Alexander, Tessa Rajak, Shifra Sznol, Bas Romeny, Michael Graves, and Willem Smelik. I’m looking forward to it. If anyone is in the area it should be a rockin’ good time.


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