Archive | March 2014

The Republic of Letters in the Babylonian and Second Temple Periods

Decades ago, scholars like Michael Stone pointed out ways that the intellectual milieu of the Aramaic Enoch literature was Mesopotamian. The question, as scholars like Mladen Popovic emphasize, has always been exactly who shared what with whom, how.

In recent years scholars have been getting more specific about who was writing what, when in the Babylonian and Second Temple periods.

Among the useful new resources and works are this database of

Cuneiform texts mentioning Israelites and Judeans

and Paul-Alain Beaulieu’s masterful treatment of the interface between cuneiform and Aramaic, and how it shifted with the drastic political changes over the first millennium, available for download here as part of the Margins of Writing, Origins of Cultures conference volume.

Jonathan Ben-Dov produced a groundbreaking study of the nature and dating of the Babylonian astronomy in the Enoch and Qumran literature, and with Ben-Dov I assembled a study of one aspect of this problem, the emergence of science–often Babylonian-based–in early Judaism, in our Ancient Jewish Sciences conference and volume, online here.

The rich archives are still being studied and scholars like Michael Jursa have revealed remarkable things about everything from Aramaic and Babylonian writing to the prosopography of scroll-writing scribes. New work is underway from the Leiden “Rivers of Babylon” Project and young scholars like T. E. Alstola.

My forthcoming book on Textual Production and Religious Experience: The Transformation of Scribal Cultures in Judea and Babylonia brings some of these lines of research together.




Beyond Borrowing: Aramaic Scribal Culture and the Creativity of Second Temple Judaism, at Yale

This Friday at the Yale University Ancient Societies Workshop:

What would it mean for a Jewish writer to “borrow” from Mesopotamian culture? Scholars have often pointed to Babylonian influence to help explain what is new about Second Temple literature. A flowering of new genres, connected with new forms of thought, appear: apocalypses, scriptural commentaries, even astronomy and perhaps science. And after all, by the Hellenistic period Judah had been a vassal or colony of no less than three different Babylonian-writing empires for almost 400 years. But precisely how would these ideas get there? in contrast to the many studies comparing the literary patterns of Mesopotamian and Jewish writings, little has been done on the historical relationship between actual Babylonian and Judean writers, and the connections have seemed difficult to trace. We tend to talk about contact between literatures rather than people, as if tablets and scrolls could speak to each other.
Methodologically, this problem is tied up with the concept of influence, a powerful but problematic concept in the study of the ancient world. It implies a zero-sum economic model of culture: When one culture begins to resemble a nearby one with respect to a certain feature, we say one has “borrowed” from or “exchanged” with the other. This dead metaphor reveals a common lack of precision in our explanations of cultural change. In fact, our use of “borrowing” and “exchange” hides a different model–one of broader membership and productivity.
This concept will be explored through the Hebrew, Aramaic and Babylonian evidence for Judean-Mesopotamian contact during the Persian and Hellenistic periods. This contact has been assumed to be almost a black box, but there is in fact siginficantly more useful data than has been applied. I will survey some of it and suggest conclusions about the nature of cultural exchange between Babylonia and Judea and its impact on Second Temple Judaism. I will argue that Jewish and Mesopotamian scholars often did not need to “exchange” or “borrow” because in certain concrete ways they were part of the same culture, one in which Aramaic had moved from being an imperial cosmopolitan language to a shared cosmic one. Second Temple Judaism came to share a widespread type of ancient knowledge, but one with a distinctive concern to correlate human practice with the revealed nature of the cosmos.

Is The Torah Actually a Theological Document?

an upcoming talk:

Why the Torah is Not a Theological Document: Pentateuchal Composition as Scholarly Collection

Contrary to previous attempts to explain the Pentateuch’s editing through analogy with Mesopotamian literary works such as the Gilgamesh epic, the Pentateuch does not formally resemble any standard Babylonian literary text. While Babylonian narratives are coherent, with events happening only once, the Pentateuch is distinctively incoherent, with many key events happening in two or more incompatible ways. By contrast, the Pentateuch’s clearest formal features are most strongly analogous to ancient Near Eastern scholarly collections, which often include variant versions of “the same” contents. While the Pentateuch’s thoroughgoing interweaving of preexisting literary compositions has no real ’empirical models’ in the sense of direct pre-Hellenistic Near Eastern parallels, it was most plausibly produced through a set of text-building moves parallel to those of contemporary first-millennium scribal cultures. The striking differences result from the different source materials Judean scholars drew on and the distinctive literary values they applied, values that are themselves clues to the nature of Pentateuchal composition. The Pentateuch stands in sharp contrast to its Judahite building blocks, which do resemble other Near Eastern literature, and its Jewish descendants, which struggle to make coherent theological claims out of their interweaving. The deliberate and non-hierarchical juxtaposition of incompatible legal and literary claims about God and the order of the universe make the Torah a scholarly collection, not a theological document–but one that was intended for a public rather than a court.

I’ll be presenting this at the 2014 Annual Meeting of the Society of Biblical Literature in the Book History and Biblical Literatures session.