From Adapa to Enoch: an Overview


I therefore assume that most visionaries are either psychotic or shamming, or that they are imitating other visionaries who are psychotic, shamming, or imitating. If this assumption holds, it may be that much recent visionary poetry is written by imitators imitating imitators imitating imitators imitating imitators worshipfully imitating a few originals. – Joshua Mehigan

At a glance, here are the main points of my new book, From Adapa to Enoch: Scribal Culture and Religious Vision in Judea and Babylon, in press for Spring publication in Siebeck’s Texts and Studies in Ancient Judaism series, which will be the topic of a discussion at the November Society of Biblical Literature meeting.

This book asks what drove the religious visions—and literary production–of ancient scribes. During the first millennium bce both Babylonian and Judean scribes wrote about and emulated their heroes Adapa and Enoch, who went to heaven to meet god. These sages brought back esoteric secrets uniting knowledge of the divine and physical world—what we would call both mysticism and science—secrets the scribes copied and shared with each other. These ideals of knowledge represented the soul of their literature and training.

Heavenly journeys and the visions described in ancient religious literature have often been understood ahistorically, as symbols or primordial forces. But to us the visions of first-millennium Near Eastern scribal culture are historical objects before anything else: we know them exclusively through tablets, figurines, and seals dug up out of the ground, scrolls discovered, copied and translated. This book takes three avenues to make them available as historical, material things made by people.

1) it treats Mesopotamian and Judean scribal cultures as individual, pragmatic institutions, presenting the textual evidence for how the best-documented visionary figures were used over centuries or millennia. Adapa’s journey is documented over a thousand years before Enoch’s, yet their revelations share important elements. The book therefore examines the clearest cases of contact between scribal cultures, precisely when and how they came to share key features.

2) it examines the persona of the scribal hero, not as an original visionary lost to history but as a durable ritual role. Rather than an irrecoverable religious experience, it argues that we can recover how the ideal scribal “self” was available to certain people in certain ways: through rituals documented in texts, through ideals depicted in literature, and through institutions that made these roles durable.

3) it examines what was behind the creation of ancient religious literature by analyzing specific cases where these texts and selves worked together, as part of a history of how the world was thought about and how it could be known: what the philosopher Ian Hacking would call a historical ontology and epistemology of first-millennium scribal cultures. The surprising result is at least as much a history of science as a history of mysticism: insight into the changing ancient visions of the fundamental nature of existence and how it can be known.

I wrote this book to address a big question for which philology has often had more data than answers. In “The Assyrian Tree of Life: Tracing the Origins of Jewish Monotheism and Greek Philosophy” (1993) the great Assyriologist Simo Parpola threw down the gauntlet for understanding the religious visions of ancient scribes historically. I found the work both dangerously anachronistic and spellbinding when I first encountered it. Comparing the cosmic trees on Neo-Assyrian palace walls with the cosmic trees representing the Godhead in medieval Kabbalah, Parpola argued that Jewish and Mesopotamian thought shared a worldview symbolized in the tree, often skipping 1-2,000-year gaps in evidence to find a system of thought nowhere clearly documented in the ancient Near Eastern sources. My own Akkadian teacher, the Sumerologist Jerrold Cooper, pinpointed the problematic logic in a review: if a Mesopotamian phenomenon could be interpreted kabbalistically, then that interpretation must be originally Mesopotamian. Yet Cooper agreed that given their sustained contacts, elements of Mesopotamian religion must live on via Jewish thought. How can we develop a precise and rigorous understanding of the interplay between influence and parallel development in two intertwined ancient religious cultures? How can we talk about what it meant to them?


Chapter 1, “Heavenly Sages and a Mesopotamian Scribal Culture of Continuity,” draws on 2,000 years of cuneiform data to set up the book’s arguments by presenting and analyzing every Sumerian and Akkadian text about the heavenly journey. The earliest Mesopotamian journeys to heaven are the ascents of kings, but in the Old Babylonian period the most enduring Mesopotamian myth of ascent emerges: the journey of the sage Adapa. At this early stage Mesopotamian exorcists already identified directly themselves with this mythic sage in ritual. With the loss of native kingship in the Persian period, scribal ancestors and heroes became the protagonists of history in a new way.

Chapter 2, “‘I Am Adapa!’ The Divine Personae of Mesopotamian Scribes,” examines Babylonian scribal mechanisms of identification with the heavenly sage Adapa, focusing on what they tell us about how scribes identified themselves and related to the knowledge in their texts during the Persian and Hellenistic periods. Tracking shifts in this culture, it paints a historical portrait of late Babylonian scholarly culture from within and identify key aspects of its relationship to the past, the production of knowledge, and textual change. A key feature of these scribes’ self-understanding came from their theory of the universe, which did not separate human culture from physical nature or the supernatural. They saw their cuneiform culture as fundamentally connected to the divine knowledge and power that structured the universe by means of language. As a result, scribal learning naturally provided access to both cosmic secrets and divine presence.

The book then moves to track changes in the Judean scribal persona, along with shifts in their ontology and epistemology. It argues that scribal culture was more than just the production and interpretation of texts. Writing was intertwined with the scribes’ sense of who they could be and what they could know.

Chapter 3, “Ezekiel’s Hand of the Lord: Judahite Scribal Reinventions of Heavenly Vision,” examines a set of important and plausibly datable visions of God in heaven. Rather than a long tradition of direct identification, as in Mesopotamia, we see a powerful but volatile discourse of religious experience emerge in response to problems of religious communication in exilic Judah. The scribes who produced the book of Ezekiel invented a new and more immediate way of presenting older mythic visions of God’s throne, through Ezekiel’s being touched by the “hand of the Lord.” But their inheritors discarded this discourse in favor of a new way of presenting revelation in terms of exact knowledge of the physical world. A developing interest in the heavenly journey began to present revelation as a kind of science of the cosmos.

Chapter 4, “Enoch’s Knowledge and the Rise of Apocalyptic Science,” shows how Hellenistic Judean scribes came to share key features with late Babylonian scribes and in contrast with the earlier Judahite scholarly culture represented in the Hebrew Bible. These include an interest in identification with heavenly sages such as Enoch and systematic exact knowledge of the physical world. The core of the chapter is a case study of this new knowledge, examining how Babylonian astronomy was presented in the language of the Tabernacle revelation from Exodus. The chapter elucidates the two ways this new approach to knowledge and identity came into being. The first is parallel transformations in culture: with the death of native kingship scribes increasingly reflected on themselves, inserting themselves into history as heroes. The second is the way Judean scribes came to share a cosmopolitan Babylonian-Aramaic culture with larger communities of knowledge, but was marked by a distinctive concern to correlate human practice with the revealed nature of the cosmos.

Chapter 5, “Aramaic Scholarship and Cultural Transmission: From Public Power to Secret Knowledge” investigates the transmission of Babylonian texts and scholarship into West Semitic languages. Important sets of evidence for ancient scribal cultures have been walled off from each other by modern disciplinary boundaries: while Aramaic-writing scribes had decisive roles in both Judean and late Babylonian culture, research has been divided between Assyriology, North-West Semitic epigraphy, and Second Temple Jewish studies. This chapter unites these areas to survey the strongest evidence for Babylonian-to-West Semitic textual transmission. It shows that since the ninth century, Aramaic scribalism was thoroughly intertwined with Babylonian, but that it enters dramatically new realms of Babylonian culture in the Persian and Hellenistic periods. The connections were more intimate than borrowing: Jewish and Mesopotamian scholars were becoming part of the same community, in which Aramaic had moved from being a cosmopolitan language to a cosmic one.

Chapter 6, “‘Who is Like Me Among the Angels?’ Judean Reinventions of the Scribal Persona” asks how scribes could plausibly claim to know newly revealed things. It argues that the most important process was through identification with ideal figures such as Enoch. While the mechanics of this identification have been seen as obscure, mystical or literary, this chapter argues that instead there are concrete, historically developing mechanisms by which the speaker of a prayer could identify with a mythic figure enthroned in heaven. As in Mesopotamia, the horizons of scribal personhood and knowledge were set by the scribes’ ontologies and epistemologies, their assumptions about how things exist and are known. By the Hellenistic period, a theory had arisen in which God had established fundamental secrets of cosmic order through language—language that humans had the capacity to know. These divine secrets and reckonings were praised in such texts as the Qumran Hodayot and revealed, for example, in early Enochic literature. The result was a scholarly culture that viewed both Babylonian astronomy and Hebrew scriptures as its own ancient Israelite heritage by means of an Aramaic medium, and through its linguistic tools could learn and produce revelation as scientific knowledge as much as religious experience.


S22-122 Hebrew Scriptures and Cognate Literature
9:00 AM to 11:30 AM
Room: Downtown Atlanta Marriott M109 (Marquis Level)

Jonathan Ben-Dov, University of Haifa, Presiding, introduction and comments from Benjamin Sommer (JTSA) in absentia (15 min)
Naomi Janowitz, University of California-Davis (25 min)
Martti Nissinen, University of Helsinki (25 min)
Francesca Rochberg, University of California, Berkeley  (25 min)
Seth Sanders,University of California-Davis  (25 min)
Discussion (25 min)





One response to “From Adapa to Enoch: an Overview”

  1. Mike Wilson says :

    I hope to read this after its published. Mysticism in Mesopotamian text was a subject of some of my university research, and would love to see what someone who devoted more time discovered. I expect the price will be expensive, scholarly publications being how they are, do think it will be available through libraries pretty soon?

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