Jim Davila (1/06)

Blogger of the Month for January 2006

An Interview with James R. Davila

Editorial Note: James Davila is the author of the weblog PaleoJudaica.com athttp://paleojudaica.blogspot.com/.

BB: First, thank you so much for being our featured blogger.

JD: Glad to be here.

BB: Professor Davila, what first drew your interest to the study of ancient Judaisms?

JD: Actually, it’s “Dr. Davila,” not “Professor.” In the British system only full professors have that title. But Jim works fine too.

I’ve been interested in the Bible as long as I can remember. In high school I got interested in biblical languages and taught myself Hebrew and Greek. After that I was hooked. Through my undergraduate work and most of my postgraduate work (or “graduate” work in American English) I actually focused more on the early period, the Iron Age and the early second millennium and even third-millennium B.C.E. I worked a lot on Iron-Age epigraphy, Akkadian, Sumerian, and the like. But when Frank Cross offered to let me edit some unpublished Dead Sea Scrolls for my doctoral dissertation, I started thinking more about the Hellenistic period, and over time my interests have shifted until almost all my work ranges from that time through late antiquity.

BB: Do you prefer the term “Judaisms” or is another more appropriate?

JD: The usefulness of the plural is that it reminds us that Judaism is a very flexible system in which any two given forms may have very little in common. But I do prefer “Judaism,” since I think that there are key concerns (e.g., the one God, scripture, law, ritual, purity, priesthood, temple, holy land, national identity, etc.) many of which figure in any given “Judaism,” or form of Judaism, even though a given form may not have them all and those key elements are often interpreted in very different and even mutually exclusive ways from form to form.

BB: How did it come about that you found yourself in Scotland?

JD: In the spring of 1995, David Reimer, who is now at the University of Edinburgh but at the time was at Regent’s Park College in Oxford, posted the advertisement for the position in St. Andrews on the Ioudaios e-mail list. I think he got it from the Times Higher Education Supplement. I was teaching at a small college in Iowa at the time. I applied for it, they flew me out for an interview, and I got it. And it’s been good.

So it was only thanks to the Internet — which back then was a new phenomenon for most of us — that I knew about the job at all. A couple of years before that, I might not even have heard of it.

BB: This may seem obvious, but I’m curious as to how you decided on the name of your weblog. Would you mind explaining your choice?

JD: I wanted to start a blog that focused on my academic interests, so mostly on ancient Judaism. I wanted to call it something catchy and easy to remember. I don’t know when I thought of it. Perhaps in the shower, where I get a lot of my good ideas. But the Latin roots expressed the sense succinctly and with the right flavor of antiquity. Once I thought of it, it just seemed right.

BB: There was recently a lot of discussion about the term “biblioblogger”. Do you still prefer it or have you come up with a replacement term?

JD: No, I still don’t like it and, no, I haven’t been able to come up with anything better, so I use it.

BB: You have a book coming out soon, would you mind describing it?

JD: Sure. It’s out now and was at the SBL convention in Philly in November. The book is called The Provenance of the Pseudepigrapha: Jewish, Christian, or Other? It looks at the Old Testament Pseudepigrapha on its own terms, rather than as a means to an end. Specialists in early Christianity or ancient Judaism tend to come to these texts looking for Jewish background to the New Testament or to Rabbinic Literature, and thus are tempted to take them as Jewish works of the first century or earlier, even though there is good reason to think that many of them are actually Christian compositions from considerably later. The book tackles the question of how you tell the date and origin of such books and under what circumstances you can tell at all, and it lays out a methodology for sorting out the provenance of ancient pseudepigrapha. It shows that one cannot assume a book is Jewish just because it deals with themes from the Hebrew Bible and has no obvious Christian features (or has only a few such features that can be assumed to be secondary additions). I demonstrate that a number of ancient works that can be shown to be Christian on other grounds have no or little explicitly Christian content, so establishing Jewish provenance has to be based on positive evidence, not lack of it. The book also collects a corpus of Old Testament Apocrypha and pseudepigrapha that can be regarded as Jewish beyond reasonable doubt, and analyses many other Apocrypha and pseudepigrapha that often are assumed to be Jewish but which may well not be and should not be treated as such with our current state of knowledge. (Incidentally, I also talk about the question of “Judaisms” vs. “Judaism” in the first chapter.)

I’ve summarized the argument of much of the book in a recent article in theExpository Times“The Old Testament Pseudepigrapha as Background to the New Testament.”

BB: What is your next project to be?

JD: Two big projects. First, my colleague Richard Bauckham and I recently got a major research grant for our More Old Testament Pseudepigrapha Project, which aims to publish another one or two Charlesworth volume-sized volumes of Old Testament pseudepigrapha that aren’t in the Charlesworth collection. We have a research fellow (Dr. Alexander Panayotov) to administer, coordinate, and contribute to the project, and he has just arrived in St. Andrews. We have more than thirty scholars from around the world who are producing translations of and introductions to more than sixty texts, plus lots of fragments.

My second book-length project is a translation of the “Hekhalot Literature,” the mass of late-antique and early medieval Hebrew and Aramaic Jewish mystical texts that are the sources for what people call “Merkavah Mysticism.” Peter Schäfer published an excellent synoptic edition of some of the major manuscripts back in 1981, and I and many others have written books and articles on the texts, but the corpus has never been translated into English (apart from Philip Alexander’s excellent translation of 3 Enoch, a work that I’m not going to translate). The book will include the texts called the Hekhalot Rabbati, the Sar Torah, the Hekhalot Zutarti, the Maaseh Merkavah, the Merkavah Rabba, and various smaller bits and pieces.

BB: Give readers your take on the use of unprovenanced antiquities for historical reconstruction.

JD: I used to have a pragmatic tolerance of this, on the grounds that if we didn’t use “unprovenanced” (i.e., usually looted) material, we stood to lose a lot of valuable information. I do think that still applies in some cases, but I’ve become much less tolerant of it for two reasons. First, using this material more or less directly fuels the illicit antiquities trade and encourages the kind of horrific site looting that is rightly getting so much attention in Iraq but is really a global problem. Second, the forgery crisis in Israel seems to indicate that unscrupulous people have been corrupting our corpus of inscriptions with fakes for a couple of decades and making a fast buck off of doing so. The overall result is that, as a matter of simple practicality, we have to assume that unprovenanced inscriptions and artifacts that have surfaced during that time are forgeries unless we have very good reason to think otherwise. This has damaged the field and we need to put a stop to it.

BB: Tell us, if you would, one thing that readers may not know about you but that they would find interesting.

JD: When I was a kid I was a professional actor and I appeared in, among other things, an episode of The Waltons.

BB: What do you see blogs becoming in the future?

JD: In the short run, I think that blogs will become ever easier to use and more and more common. I hope many more of our colleagues in biblical studies and related fields will start blogs. The long run is harder to predict, because our technological base is improving exponentially and it’s hard to tell what new resources it’s going to offer us. In general, as I’ve said before in my SBL Forum article and again my recent SBL paper in Philadelphia, I think that blogging is “an early and primitive manifestation of what will become the ubiquitous media presence of the individual.” In other words, over the long term we will all become more and more connected together through the far more sophisticated offspring of what we now call the Internet, and our connections to it and to each other will be less and less obtrusive and more and more natural and taken for granted. Big Media (what bloggers call, often disparagingly, “mainstream media”) will still have an important place, but it will become more and more interactive. Two-way communication between it and individuals and groups — all of whom ultimately will occupy the same, um, medium — will make Big Media much more readily and swiftly self-correcting than it is today and will present us with a media continuum with Big Media at one end and the individual on the other and every imaginable permutation of group-size in between.

That’s my guess, anyway.

BB: In the past you have offered online “modules” to your course offerings running parallel with courses offered at St. Andrews. Do you plan on doing that again in the future, and if so, when, and on what subject.

JD: “Module” is British bureaucratize for “a one-semester course.” In Britain “course” means “a course of study,” i.e., a degree course, so they had to come up with a new term when they abandoned the old terms in the academic year and “semesterised” the system.

In answer to your question, in a couple of years I hope to teach my Old Testament Pseudepigrapha course/module again and to create a blog to go with it. But that’s very tentative at present, so no promises.

BB: Thank you for your time and thank you for your answers to these rather wide ranging questions. We hope that your readers and ours will come to appreciate you even more with this small glimpse behind the scenes.

JD: Thank you, Brandon.

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