Did ancient Israelites or Babylonians ever actually have a set list of “inspired” authoritative sacred writings? This colloquium brings linguistics, anthropology, and new evidence from ancient inscriptions to bear on a key question of religion and literature.
Tuesday, April 5th, noon-2pm at the University of Michigan
202 S. Thayer room 2000
Seth L. Sanders, University of California Davis
When Was Ancient Israel an Oral Society? Semiotic Ideologies in Hebrew
We used to imagine that the Bible arose the way ancient Israel did, as a simple oral society grew into a complex literate one. Archaeological discovery disrupted this simple story when it turned out that people in the Levant had writing long before they had Hebrew: there was no history of evolution. Scholarship since abandoned the idea of a transformative social-literary shift from oral to written but continues to struggle with these somewhat outdated cookie-cutter concepts. But an alternative history of ancient ideals of textuality can be written based on excavated and datable sources. It suggests that ancient writers used Hebrew not to make speech permanent but to manage relationships between what is local and imperial, intelligible and unintelligible, remote and present.
Jay Crisostomo, University of Michigan
The Making of Many Books: Some Reflections from Babylonia
How do we get from texts copied by scribes to standardized (series of) authoritative compositions? What grants these compositions authority? Are canons and/or standardized works merely figments of our presentist imaginations or perhaps creations of historiographic development? The earliest discoveries and decipherments of cuneiform texts have shaped our perceptions of how these compositions were used and constructed for scribal knowledge and authority. Nevertheless, it is certain that some compositions were imbued with ancient communal authority and simultaneously open to alteration and variation. This paper surveys the histories of some well-known compositions as products of ancient scribal practice, authoritative knowledge, and constructs of modern discourses.
Abstract for Manuscripts, Scribal Cultures, Scribal Change, a special joint session of the Hebrew Bible and Cognate Literatures and Apocrypha and Pseudepigrapha Units at SBL 2016
Many early Jewish and late Babylonian writers learned the same script and similar ideas; did they also learn the same worldview? During the Persian and Hellenistic periods higher-level Aramaic scribes in Mesopotamia, Egypt, and the Levant shared key elements in their education: For these scholars, Ahiqar and Sennacherib were international figures of legend and otherworldly sages like Adapa and Enoch were ideal figures of emulation. Despite their different backgrounds, their minds were shaped by such rigors as sexagesimal mathematics and the astronomy of Enūma Anu Enlil. In my recent From Adapa to Enoch: Scribal Culture and Religious Vision in Judea and Babylonia (Tübingen 2016), I argued that early Jewish texts like Aramaic Enoch and the Qumran Hodayot also share a metaphysics with Babylonian scholarship. Both lacked a concept of nature as a physical realm separate from the cultural or supernatural, and instead had a semiotic ontology in which the universe itself was linguistically patterned. Yet while the two cultures were converging in some ways, they also had deep historical differences in media, ideology, and politics. In this talk I will press the contemporary data deeper into the history of ideas, asking whether this led by the Hellenistic period to an ancient science–or theology–shared between Jewish and Mesopotamian cultures.