Yesterday I crashed a conference. It’s being organized by the Ecumenical Theological Research Fraternity in Israel (its aims are set out here) and throughout the week it is hosting a varied and interesting range of speakers. The conference is taking place at the Hotel Yehuda in South-West Jerusalem, which is a bit tricky to get to by bus from where I’m staying, so I went on my bike. The route was most enjoyable – apart from the hills. It took me along the new cycle trail which runs along next to the train line.

First up was Professor Gabriel Barkay who directs the Temple Mount Sifting Project.

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Brief history for those who are interested: the Haram ash-Sherif (Arabic for “Noble Sanctuary”), or Har HaBayit (Hebrew for “Hill of the House”, or “Temple Mount”) is managed by the Jerusalem Islamic Waqf. The history and the politics are complicated, but this is the status quo.  In 1999-2000 the Waqf conducted a large scale construction project on the site without archaeological supervision. The purpose was to dig out an entrance to the so-called Solomon’s Stables, an ancient subterranean structure at the south-eastern corner of the site, which has been converted into a mosque which can accommodate 15,000 worshippers. The dirt which was dug out (tons of it) was dumped – some near the ancient town of Bethany, but most in the Kidron Valley. Larger items were picked out before the dirt was moved, and if you walk along the eastern side of the Temple Mount platform today, you can see piles of stuff, including ashlars, bits of columns, capitals etc. It’s a terrible mess. In my five visits there over the last couple of months I’ve discovered that if you take too much interest in this stuff, you very quickly get shooed away.

Rubble on the Temple Mount

Rubble on the Temple Mount

The purpose of the Temple Mount Sifting Project is to go through all of the dirt which was dumped in the Kidron Valley, sieve by sieve, to see what’s in there. Professor Barkay gave us a summary of the story and of the finds so far.

Most interesting to me is that a lot of Byzantine material has been found. The usual story told is that after the destruction of Jerusalem by the Romans in AD70, the Temple Mount was abandoned – left to become a wasteland. The Christians, it is said, in the 4th-7th centuries, had no interest in the site, preferring to leave it desolate as evidence of God’s judgement on the place. The finds, however, suggest that a different story should be told. There are plenty of Byzantine materials among them – coins, bits of buildings, floor tiles, pendants, even dice.

Second up was Professor Lawrence Schiffman of New York University who gave us an introduction to Pesher Exegesis in the Dead Sea Scrolls. In order to do this he took us through Pesher Habakkuk, explaining what the writer was doing with Habakkuk’s prophecy, and drawing some parallels and contrasts with some of the treatment of OT texts in the Gospels.

Lastly I went to a seminar on the Hebrew Text of Genesis 11:1-9, the story of the Tower of Babel, led by Rev Aart Brons. What was particularly amusing about this was that among the 20 or so participants at least 7 different first languages were spoken. The point of verses 6 and 7 of the text seems to be that speaking different languages makes it more difficult to cooperate. We tried.

There was a bit too much participation in small groups to take good notes in the last session!

There was a bit too much participation in small groups to take good notes in the last session!