The Primeval History and Ancient Hebrew Philology in the Persian Period

It has long been noted that biblical authors did not typically sign their work. Most worked as participants in a stream of tradition that is to us frustratingly fluid, where contributors anonymously reshaped existing texts. While most major works of biblical literature are products of this anonymous, fluid “authorship,” from the narratives of Samuel to the prophecies of Isaiah, the Pentateuch is the most challenging because it also breaks with it. The Primeval History of Genesis 1-11 is a clear example of how the Pentateuch departs from this common biblical mode of transmission. Here one previously reshaped, complete and coherent strand has then been taken and interwoven with another, sharply different but coherent strand. While literarily obvious, this departure has never been satisfyingly theorized as philology: what new kind of textual transmission does it represent? What history of text-building and reading practices was it part of?

The goal of this panel is to find ways to answer Sheldon Pollock’s call: “If we are ever to make an argument for philology’s disciplinary identity, coherence, and necessity, it must be now.” This paper responds with evidence addressing a rather large gap in his paper: his histories of European, Indian and Chinese philology begin in the early modern period.  But what did philology look like in the ancient world? How did people make sense of texts in the Persian period, for example?

Interestingly, the earliest ancient Near Eastern evidence of a signature–a claim of individual participation and responsibility via the writing of one’s name–is Jewish, occurring in Persian-era legal documents. And it is connected with a strikingly new image of verbatim textual transmission, which can be tracked across different first-millennium Near Eastern scribal cultures. This paper will examine some contrasting attitudes toward textual transmission in biblical narrative with further external evidence from the Persian period to suggest a picture of the Primeval History, and perhaps the Pentateuch, as the product of a historically distinctive type of ancient Hebrew philology.

This November in the The History and Methods of Philology in Hebrew Bible Research session, which will respond to Sheldon Pollock’s 2009 “Future Philology? The Fate of a Soft Science in a Hard World” (Critical Inquiry 2009, 931-63). 

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