Assimilated to the Blogosphere: Blogging Ancient Judaism
Do you know what a blog is? It used to be that I could pretty much count on a blank look and a "no" when I asked someone this question, although happily that is changing. The word "blog" is short for "weblog," meaning simply a web page supported by software that makes it easy to update frequently in a series of separate posts, each of which can be linked to individually. People who maintain one or more of these websites are "bloggers" and the collective mass of blogs, numbering in the millions, is the "Blogosphere." The best-known blogs are devoted to political commentary. The most heavily read is the Daily Kos, a massive group-project leftist blog owned by Markos Moulitsas. The one most consulted by conservative readers is Instapundit, owned by (small-L) libertarian Glenn Reynolds. Both get hundreds of thousands of visitors every day.
I have poached the phrase "assimilated to the Blogosphere" from Reynolds. Heavily trafficked national political blogs have gotten the most attention from the media, for obvious reasons, but there are countless other blogs that get less traffic and deal with other things. Many are effectively personal diaries; others deal with hobbies, charities, local politics, and areas in which the blogger is (or imagines him or herself to be) an expert. Not a few bloggers are scholars—with or without an academic position—who write about their own area of expertise. And some of these scholar-bloggers are specialists in the Bible or closely related areas. The emergent consensus is to call them "bibliobloggers," a term coined by Classics blogger David Meadows.
I am a biblioblogger. For the last two years I have operated a blog called PaleoJudaica that is devoted to ancient Judaism and its literary and historical context, especially as treated in the media. During PaleoJudaica's existence I have posted to it nearly every day, often several times per day. I don't remember the exact concerns that led me to open a blog. I think it was partly frustration with the carelessness and inaccuracy with which the mainstream media often treats specialist subjects such as my own, combined with being impressed with how often the major political blogs were able to catch the media in errors and sometimes get them to correct them. I think it was also partly my longstanding interest in making my work available to a popular audience. Having a blog gives me an international forum to give non-specialists a better perspective on the media reports they read about my field and to speak to them with something approaching my whole voice rather than just my scholarly voice.
PaleoJudaica has allowed me to address both concerns. My previous impression of media carelessness and distortion has been fully borne out. This is not merely a matter of predictable biases and distortions in media outlets that have a particular axe to grind, such as Al Jazeerah's use of anti-Semitic propaganda about the Talmud or Jihad Unspun's bizarre transmogrification of the story of the Iraqi Jewish archive recovered during the Iraq war. Mainstream outlets exhibit a surprising level of carelessness, error, and bias in treating my field. Some of the errors are trivial: the Los Angeles Times thinks the present tense of the verb "smite" is "smote" (and this in a headline about typos); the Atlanta Journal-Constitution refers to the "Book of Revelations"; and the London Times thinks the Bible says that three Magi visited the baby Jesus. Others are innocent, if embarrassingly ignorant blunders: the Chicago Tribune reports that Hebrew and Arabic "sprang from Aramaic"; the New York Times informs us that Aristotle tutored Alexander the Great in Hebrew; the London Times reports that the stone jars found in the Cana excavation may be the ones Jesus used in the story in John 2; and the Guardian misquotes the head of the Israel Antiquities Authority as referring to "the third temple of Joash" and gets the chronology of the recent inscription-forgery scandal in Israel wrong to boot.
Other errors in the media are less innocent. It is regrettable, but not surprising, that some anti-Semitic sources in the Middle East deny that a Jewish temple ever stood on the Temple Mount in Jerusalem. But it is disquieting to see Time Magazine and the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation pandering to this viewpoint. Mel Gibson's movie The Passion of the Christ generated a great deal of controversy both before and after it came out. Unfortunately, some of the discussion was not at a very high level, as when New York Times columnist Frank Rich made creative use of an ellipsis to give the false impression that Gibson had made an anti-Semitic statement. I wrote to Rich about his quotation, but he never replied and the Times has never offered a correction. Indeed, when blogger Robert Cox created a parody site for unacknowledged errors of Times columnists, the paper responded with a threat of legal action, which it then quickly withdrew when challenged by Cox's lawyer. Rich's out-of-context quote of Gibson is featured on the parody site. In June the Kansas City Star ran an article by Neil Altman and David Crowder in which they argued that the Dead Sea Scrolls are medieval. Neither is a trained Qumranologist, but they have been promoting this preposterous notion in the mainstream press for some years. That is bad enough, but in this particular piece they misrepresented the views of a real Dead Sea Scrolls specialist, James VanderKam. The Kansas City Star has not acknowledged the error, and the media continue to treat these men as experts on the Scrolls (e.g., recently in the Toronto Star).
Besides noting errors in the press, PaleoJudaica has allowed me to break and cover several stories of interest to biblical scholars and non-specialist followers of biblical studies that were not covered by the mainstream media. These include an announcement of the forthcoming publication of the Coptic Gospel of Judas and the discovery of a new Aramaic fragment of 1 Enoch (here and here). It chanced this year as well that I attended the funerals of two major biblical scholars, William McKane and Ernest (Paddy) Best. Both of them lived in St. Andrews and I knew them both. Although the media did run obituaries, mine are the only public accounts of the funerals.
PaleoJudaica has also given me the opportunity to interact with newspaper and magazine articles on subjects relevant to ancient Judaism and sometimes other topics. I offered a critique of David Noel Freedman's philological arguments in favor of the genuiness of the "Jehoash/Joash inscription", arguments which he published in Biblical Archaeology Review. When a report of the discovery of new letters of the fifth century C.E. writer Procopius of Gaza appeared in the Daily Star, Lebanon, David Meadows, Stephen C. Carlson, and I noted that the photograph of the manuscript showed it to be much later than the fifth century, a point not made at all clear in the article. I have offered some criticisms from the viewpoint of a textual specialist to comments reportedly made about the Dead Sea Scrolls by recent excavators of the Qumran site. I have taken issue with Tristram Hunt over his dismissal of "alternate history" in a Guardian article. I have offered some comments (here and here) that place the developments in Lubavitcher messianism over the last decade into a larger historical context. I've offered some historical and other criticisms of Rabbi Yehuda Berg and the Kabbalah Centre. And I've noted how anti-Semitic false propaganda about the Talmud was a contributing factor to the murder of Dutch filmmaker Theo Van Gogh.
Given the limited space in this article, I have concentrated on how blogging by a specialist can act as a corrective and supplement to the media, but this is by no means its only use. PaleoJudaica tends to be a "filter blog" that links to and comments on news stories. Some other biblioblogs have a similar filtering format, for example, Mark Goodacre's New Testament Gateway blog and Jim West's Biblical Theology blog. Other bibliobloggers tend to post less frequently with longer thematic essays. Seth Sanders's Serving the Word is a pure "essay blog" and Stephen Carlson's Hypotyposeis comes close. Ed Cook's Ralph the Sacred River comes somewhere in between, but leans toward the essay format. PaleoJudaica too sometimes posts essays that discuss research ideas in preliminary form, such as this post on the Old Testament Pseudepigrapha. And I have blogged on other matters, such as advice on presenting papers at conferences; my personal accounts of conferences themselves; political commentary; interaction with professional societies (including the SBL!) on society matters; and reviewing movies (most notably Mel Gibson's The Passion of the Christ, but also others such as The Last Temptation of Christ, and Stigmata). Sometimes one element in a post will take off and become a prolonged topic of discussion itself, as did the question of the horns on Michelangelo's Moses.
Recently I have extended the blogging experiment in a new (at least for me) direction. My blog Qumranica acts as a bulletin board for a course I am currently teaching on the Dead Sea Scrolls. In the past I have used e-mail discussion lists for this purpose, but eventually I decided that the effort of policing them was not worth it. This project is at too early a stage for me to comment on it here, but I'm sure I will have more to say about it in due course.
Since this essay deals so much with my response to the media, it is fair to ask how much the media has responded to me. The answer is, very little. As I noted, for example, Frank Rich never replied to my e-mail and never acknowledged his error. This has been the typical journalistic response, although quite often when I have commented about something a specific scholar has said, the scholar hears of it and does reply. And once, the Director of the New Library of Alexandria did respond, albeit selectively, to my complaint about one of its exhibits. But the effort of blogging is still worthwhile, for two reasons in particular. First, my rough estimate is that perhaps 500 or more people are regular readers of PaleoJudaica. Judging from my e-mail, they include both many specialists in cognate areas and many interested nonspecialists. Over time my comments are showing them systemic weaknesses in the media's treatment. Second, and perhaps no less important, my comments on news stories often end up close to the top of Google listings, especially when the story is fresh, which means that a steady stream of people who do Google searches about specific issues I've covered (e.g., "horns on Michelangelo's Moses" or " interview Rabbi Yehuda Berg") are directed on the first page or so to PaleoJudaica. Indeed, anyone searching Google for " ancient Judaism" will find PaleoJudaica near the top of the list.
On one level, the effect of this single blog is negligible. Nevertheless, some media criticisms by bloggers, most notably those leading to the Rathergate scandal, have had considerable public impact. And more to the point, there are more than seven million blogs at present, many of them run by an expert in some field—every imaginable field. The cumulative long-term effect of their criticisms is likely to be the steady erosion of the authority and credibility of the mainstream media, which should lead to the tightening up of standards in media treatment of specialized fields, hopefully with more consultation of experts.
There is good reason, therefore, to doubt that blogging is the CB radio of this decade. My guess is that it is in fact an early and primitive manifestation of what will become the ubiquitous media presence of the individual. As software to interface with the Internet becomes easier to use, as all forms of media become more and more interconnected, and as cataloguing facilities like Google become increasingly sophisticated, everyone who wants to will have a media soapbox as easy to access as CNN and the BBC are in our time. Following Sturgeon's Law, 90% (perhaps more like 99.9%) of what is available will be crud, but any professional news story will be subject to immediate criticism by experts and eyewitnesses; these worthwhile responses will be indexed next to the story itself by intelligent software; and everyone will know to check for them. The emergent order we can see developing around us even now will let the cream rise to the top and hold the media (and bloggers!) accountable for their every word as soon as it is uttered.
Will this spell the doom of the professional media? I think not. It is careless and lazy at present, because for many years it had the last and often the only word on whatever it said. It is in for a very rocky time as that changes, and Dan Rather will not be the only major media figure whose career suffers. But the corps of professional newsgathers and its infrastructure provide much important raw data on what is going on around us, often in areas hard to access otherwise, and the need for this service will remain. I think we can look forward to a leaner, sharper, more cautious, and better informed press corps as time passes. If you want to hasten that process, then go and start a blog. It's easy.
James R. Davila, University of St. Andrews, Scotland. firstname.lastname@example.org
Citation: James R. Davila, " Assimilated to the Blogosphere: Blogging Ancient Judaism," SBL Forum , n.p. [cited April 2005]. Online:http://sbl-site.org/Article.aspx?ArticleID=390