Using “Ghost Letters” to Decipher the Wisdom of Ben Sira

The book of Ben Sira (also known as Ecclesiasticus) is a collection of proverbs and poems thought to have originally been written in Hebrew in the 2nd century BCE. Although excluded from the Jewish canon, it is included in many Christian Bibles; nevertheless, it is occasionally cited with reverence in ancient and medieval rabbinic works. The oldest surviving manuscripts of the book are in Greek and Syriac; the oldest one in Hebrew, discovered in 1896, was written in the late-11th century CE and contains mysterious faded letters, which a scholar now believes he has deciphered:

[Eric R]eymond has [made] a connection between the lost first page of the manuscript and the strange ghosts of backward letters that appear on the first of the surviving pages. He posits that the backward letters are offsets or impressions of the missing text transmitted from the opposite, and long-missing, first folio page of this ancient manuscript. . . .

A scholar of ancient Hebrew texts, Reymond has been noticing and puzzling over the faint traces of letters since he was in graduate school. Were they Arabic or some other language? Could they reveal something about Ben Sira’s text that was not known from the Greek or Syriac Aramaic translations? Could they help resolve which of the variant translations—the Greek or the Syriac—was closer to the original mark?

The discovery that the ghost letters are backward Hebrew is important in and of itself. What adds even more value to his find is that it seems to indicate that the Hebrew . . . is, for the passage in question, closer to the Syriac translation than to the Greek, which will help guide future research on the evolution of Ben Sira’s text.

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More about: ancient Judaism, Apocrypha, Ben Sira, Bible, Christianity, History & Ideas

The Impossibility of Unilateral Withdrawal from the West Bank

Feb. 19 2019

Since throwing his hat into the ring for the Israeli premiership, the former IDF chief of staff Benny Gantz has been reticent about his policy plans. Nonetheless, he has made clear his openness to unilateral disengagement from the West Bank along the lines of the 2005 withdrawal from Gaza, stating the necessity of finding “a way in which we’re not controlling other people.” Gershon Hacohen argues that any such plan would be ill-advised:

The political and strategic precepts underlying the Oslo “peace” process, which Gantz echoes, vanished long ago. The PLO has unequivocally revealed its true colors: its total lack of interest in peace, unyielding rejection of the idea of Jewish statehood, and incessant propensity for violence and terrorism. . . . Tehran is rapidly emerging as regional hegemon, with its tentacles spreading from Yemen and Iraq to the Mediterranean Sea and its dogged quest for nuclear weapons continuing apace under the international radar. Even the terror groups Hizballah and Hamas pose a far greater threat to Israel’s national security than they did a decade ago. Under these circumstances, Israel’s withdrawal from the West Bank’s Area C, [the only part still under direct Israeli control], would constitute nothing short of an existential threat.

Nor does Israel need to find a way to stop “controlling other people,” as Gantz put it, for the simple reason that its control of the Palestinians ended some two decades ago. In May 1994 the IDF withdrew from all Palestinian population centers in the Gaza Strip. In January 1996 it vacated the West Bank’s populated areas (the Oslo Accords’ Areas A and B), comprising over 90 percent of the West Bank’s Palestinian residents, and handed control of that population to the Palestinian Authority (PA). . . .

This in turn means that the real dispute between Israel and the Palestinians, as well as within Israel itself, no longer revolves around the end of “occupation” but around the future of eastern Jerusalem and Area C. And since Area C (which is home to only 100,000 Palestinians) includes all the Jewish West Bank localities, IDF bases, transportation arteries, vital topographic sites, and habitable empty spaces between the Jordan Valley and the Jerusalem metropolis, its continued retention by Israel is a vital national interest. Why? Because its surrender to a potentially hostile Palestinian state would make the defense of the Israeli hinterland virtually impossible—and because these highly strategic and sparsely populated lands are of immense economic, infrastructural, communal, ecological, and cultural importance, not to mention their historical significance as the bedrock of the Jewish ancestral homeland

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More about: Benny Gantz, Israel & Zionism, Two-State Solution, West Bank