Rethinking the Idea of the Book in the Ancient World

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
800-400 BCE

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the idea of a transformative social-literary shift from oral to written but continues to struggle with these somewhat outdated cookie-cutter concepts.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.


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