Collaboration on ancient Judaism

by Kathleen Sullivan
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Faith & Religion / Theology | December 04, 2015

Bible and Second Temple Judaism scholar Yonder Gillihan – an associate professor of theology at Boston College – is a founding member of the Maccabees Project, a new multi-disciplinary collaboration of international and Boston-area scholars dedicated to research and public education on ancient Judaism and its legacy. Gillihan co-directs the Maccabees Project Dialogues, a series of public lectures and seminars that debuts later this month.  

Headquartered at the Elie Wiesel Center for Jewish Studies at Boston University, the Maccabees Project (MP) was formed to improve access to all evidence and research on Judea and Judean culture in the “Maccabean century” (c. 170-63 B.C.E.), create opportunities for scholars from different disciplines to share knowledge and test ideas, and spread new knowledge to the public.

“Every discipline that handles this stuff has its own set of evidence and methods for interpreting it, and a lot of frustration about questions that seem impossible to answer,” said Gillihan. “One way to get new insight is through interdisciplinary collaboration, but it often seems easier to dig up a new city than to collaborate effectively.”

The Maccabees Project is “bringing together questions and answers in new ways [and] has huge potential to improve everyone’s field,” he continued. “It’s really fun to have long conversations with super smart people who care about the same historical issues.”

The impetus for the MP began during an excavation led by BU archaeologist Andrea Berlin at Tel Kedesh, a Maccabean-era administrative outpost in Israel. Berlin’s team discovered the skeleton of an infant missing its hands, feet and head. Berlin reached out to scholars in other disciplines to see if they could provide context for the findings. She found that most scholarship, whether in archaeology, biblical studies, classics or history, showed the same disciplinary myopia that frustrated her own understanding of Tel Kedesh, but that there was enthusiasm among scholars to talk across disciplines.

Joining Gillihan on the Maccabees Project are scholars from BU, University of Pennsylvania, Harvard University, Israel Antiquities Authority, Tel Aviv University, University of Aix-Marseille in France; and University of Bremen and Eberhard Karls University in Germany.

The Maccabees Project has been awarded major grants from the Institute for the Liberal Arts and BU’s Jewish Cultural Endowment, with additional support from the School of Theology and Ministry, Center for Christian-Jewish Learning and Classics Department, as well as BU’s Archaeology Department and Center for the Humanities.

According to the MP scholars, the story of the Maccabees is a heroic account of Jewish rebels’ triumphant conquest of Judea, rise of the Hasmonean dynasty, and strengthening of national identity and traditions. While the ancient authors presented their versions as narrations of actual events, a growing body of research casts significant doubt on numerous aspects of these accounts. The scholars behind the MP are working together across the fields of biblical studies, ancient history, archaeology and the history of religion to get at the realities behind the stories, and to study their effects from antiquity until the present day.

“The Maccabean history is the subject of vigorous debate because it raises perennial issues about what it means to make history, both in the sense of doing deeds and crafting accounts that explain their significance. A really useful history might contain all kinds of fiction,” said Gillihan.

A significant component of the Maccabees Project is the promotion of this new knowledge to the interested public. “Many issues that appear first in the Maccabean era remain crucial to modern Judaism and Christianity, and to secular notions of national and ethnic identity, international relations, political sovereignty and legitimate authority,” explained Gillihan.

Scholars will share the results of their collaborative efforts via the Dialogues, being held Nov. 30 and Dec. 1. Led by Gillihan and historian Katell Berthelot of the National Center for Scientific Research at the University of Aix-en-Provence, the series will look into the ideology of land, specifically the Promised Land and Holy War in 1 and 2 Maccabees. There will be a luncheon discussion with students, a scholarly debate at Congregation Kehillath Israel in Brookline and a colloquium that will lead participants through an analysis of texts. Assistant Professor of the Practice of Theology Natana Delong-Bas will participate in the student discussion, which will also make connections to contemporary issues, such as the Islamic State.

A spring Dialogues, supported by an ILA grant, will be held at Boston College in April. That series will focus on ancient debates over Jewish identity, religion and political power, and the benefits and problems related to the creation of a Jewish state.

Gillihan added that he is looking forward to the group’s upcoming public events. “What better time to inaugurate the Maccabees Project than on the eve of Hanukkah, the festival that the Maccabees invented?”