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.


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