What is a source?

Philologists are most comfortable dealing with more or less of the same thing. We track shades and nuances of sameness: spelling changes between manuscripts of Genesis, dialect differences within Hebrew, differences between one edition of the Qumran Community Rule and another.

Creativity on a larger scale is something we still find disorienting. When we stumble across similar stories, themes, or discursive patterns in two totally different languages, shared between biblical and ancient near eastern texts, we lose our composure and conjure problems away with hand-waving: how did that happen? We gesture vaguely toward purely undocumented factors like an Iron-Age Jerusalem cuneiform library or a specific “oral tradition” linking the texts in question. Similarly, when a fresh new element appears in a version of an older text, it often seems to us to have emerged from an inky black obscurity—indirect exegesis, direct polemic against other texts, or the same old oral tradition seem equally available.

It’s important to emphasize how arbitrary and intellectually weak our approach to these issues looks when compared to the rest of our philological method. While we have laser-precise ways of thinking about the relationship between two written texts within the same tradition, outside of it our approach seems to resemble the old story about the drunk looking for his keys under the streetlight because it’s the only place he can see. The vast majority of ancient materials come from outside this one-channel world of direct textual transmission. Indeed, the fresh, unexampled instance is one of the most essential qualities of an interesting discovery! But the very phenomena of creativity and change remain in the mist, obscure areas we have trouble theorizing.

But by the very same token, this makes the sources of textual creativity a large fertile field in Near Eastern Studies. For it is here if anywhere that we should be able to discover historically and culturally distinct, individual modes of text-making, rather than a blur of oral and written. Most interesting, and pressing, is the question of where most of our “texts” lived. Whether we admit it or not we constantly draw on assumptions about where biblical materials originated and how they reached our manuscripts. When the world is created twice at the beginning of Genesis, or when the heroic Jael kills the fleeing general Sisera twice in Judges, where did the versions originate and how did they reach us?  Similarly with the striking shared sequence of topics preceding the nearly identical legal cases of the “Goring Ox” in the Laws of Hammurapi and Exodus[1], what do we call the series of topics linking them? A written text, an oral tradition, or something deeper than one medium, a set of things people learned that might produce different sorts of textual expression depending on whether they were writing or speaking?

Once we abandon our assumption that the world beyond our familiar manuscripts is a mystical haze, we find that the more fine-grained the data, the more promising and surprising the results can be. For example Marcuson and van den Hout’s “Memorization and Hittite Ritual: New Perspectives on the Transmission of Hittite Ritual Texts”  conclusively demonstrates the simultaneous coexistence of distinct modes of both verbatim visual text-copying and writing-down of remembered/recited versions evident within the transmission of one single ritual.

By contrast, most of our first-millennium cuneiform scholarly and literary texts are visually copied, as indicated by the frequent remark that “there is a break (hepu) here on the tablet”. There is far less of this in second-millennium texts, and often much more diversity between instances of “a” text in that period—for example, widespread short Mesopotamian ritual texts such as the “Cow of Sin” birth incantation appears only in variant forms in the second millennium but mainly in manuscript copies of one archetype in the first millennium. Powerfully different modes of text-making emerged in different times and places within the Near East, as shown by the way that some modes can be shown to define textual cultures in given historical periods. What we do not find evidence of is the mishmash of oral and written that is often assumed in place of research.

In defining a source we should try to avoid useless breadth. The more universal definition of a “source” for any element of a text would be any concrete piece of culture that the text responds to, as laid out by the great literary theorist of dialogue Mikhail Bakhtin. The most widely applicable possible interpretation that fits all uses would likely be any text or piece of discourse that the present version of a text contains or to which it responds. Any less general and more useful definition of this all-important undefined category would take research; it would need a more concrete picture of how culture traveled in a given time and region, what its most prominent vessels were in the historical period we’re interested in.

As a starting point, we can produce a strongly similar set of examples by drawing on 1) better documented contemporary cultures in Mesopotamian cuneiform and 2) better documented later example from Hebrew and Aramaic tradition. The first involves directly related historical circumstances and cultural themes (first- and second-millennium empires; Assyrian, Egyptian, and Aramean populations); the second uses the same type of media (Aramaic characters inked on parchment) and continues the ancient Hebrew literary culture we are interested in.

What was the Gilgamesh tradition?

The best-documented ancient Near Eastern narrative tradition we have available is that of Mesopotamia in the second and first millennia. In each period where we have multiple independent documents from different contexts, sources include both written copies of documents and a cluster of other forms of knowledge. This pattern can be demonstrated over the course of nearly 2000 years of textual tradition for multiple major figures such as Adapa and Etana (for a complete survey of attestations see chapter 1 of my From Adapa to Enoch) but the case of Gilgamesh will be most familiar.

In the Old Babylonian period, there were no extended, inclusive Sumerian sources about Gilgamesh, but rather isolated individual stories. Each source only narrates one major heroic episode. In particular there were five widely-used Sumerian poems about Gilgamesh, of which one, Gilgamesh and Huwawa, was part of the most standard beginning scribal curriculum, the “decad.” It corresponds to the beginning (tablets II-V) of the first-millennium Gilgamesh epic but does not include any mention of much of what we consider to be the epic. In particular, it does not mention Gilgamesh’s journey to meet the flood hero and the retelling of the flood story, a narrative that appears to have come from a pre-existing independent source and to have been editorially joined to the standard first-millennium epic. This redaction is evident in stylistic disagreements between the narrative frame that begins and ends Gilgamesh Tablet XI and the flood narrative within it.

Are Gilgamesh’s sources independent isolated traditions or part of a larger complex—does each one know the other, and how would we know? It is only when we view all available sources about Gilgamesh that it becomes clear that there was a widely known Gilgamesh tradition available to most users of the tradition that is nonetheless not mentioned in all or even most of its sources (what Gadotti and others refer to as a “Sumerian Gilgamesh Cycle”[2]). The earliest Old Babylonian Sumerian narrative traditions and poetic allusions to Gilgamesh already mention his relation to the flood hero. In the Death of Bilgames and the Ballad of Early Kings, sharing a picture of Gilgamesh as the hero who sought life but failed, while Zisudra is the one who uniquely succeeded. Thus the Ballard of Early Kings (best known from Late Bronze Age Mss which most plausibly directly convey Old Babylonian content)

11. Where is Alulu [who reigned for 36,000 years]?

12 Where is Entena who went up to [heaven]?

13 Where is Gil[games w]ho [sought] (eternal) li[fe] like (that of) [Zius]udra?

14 Where is Huwawa who..[   .]?

15 Where is Enkidu who proclaimed (his) strength throughout the land?


Compare the Death of Bilgames, segment F

“after having travelled all the roads that there are, having fetched cedar, the unique tree, from its mountains, having killed Huwawa in his forest, you set up many stelae for future days, for days to come. Having founded many temples of the gods, you reached Zisudra in his dwelling place”


Similarly the Sumerian King List sees Gilgamesh as part of a dynasty of divine early kings who are each the subjects of legendary narratives: following Enmerkar the divine Gilgamesh succeeds Lugalbanda and Dumuzi, and has a son named Ur-Nungal.

As Jean-Jacques Glassner argues, the first kings of Ur never stopped emphasizing their kinship with the family of Gilgamesh. Shulgi flaunted himself as his “brother” and extolled him for having brought kingship from Kish to Uruk, after conquering Enme(n)-baragesi. This was because in their view association by kinship was the determining factor in the gaining of royal power  (Mesopotamian Chronicles, 102-3)

In the first millennium, the way cuneiform texts were taught, edited, and transmitted in Mesopotamia had changed significantly. A written world of variance had given way to one in which texts of all genres were primarily transmitted via visual copying. A prime example of this is the relative stability of the standard Gilgamesh—while this was still not a world that valued unchanged verbatim, word-for-word and sign-by-sign transmission, copies of the Gilgamesh epic from different cities can by and large be used to complete one another.

Yet here too a well-stocked library such as Assur, Nineveh or Babylon would have contained texts conveying separate and unique Gilgamesh traditions that do not explicitly refer to each other but can be shown to assume each other. The exorcistic incantation series Maqlu invokes the magical power of the land of the dead with the phrase, “Underworld, underworld—Gilgamesh is the judge of your oath!” and in fact Gilgamesh’s most prominent ritual role is as a netherworld ruler. This feature is never mentioned in the standard epic and yet can be shown to lie at its roots—for already in the Sumerian Death of Bilgames, his future role as a netherworld judge is mentioned.

At no point in our evidence does any one source include or explicitly refer to most of its variants or competitors, even though in many cases context shows that its creator and users were aware of them.  There is never any one tradition.

Some further strong examples of this would show that the shared assumption common in contemporary biblical studies that allusions and traditions are complete and exclusive is false, and any work founded on it would be called into question.

(Next: Part 2 of 2, Some Hebrew “Sources” from Josephus to Nachmanides)

[1] Exodus 21:28–32, Laws of Hammurapi §§ 250–252, preceded by: 1) Debt-slavery of males: Exod 21:2, 3–6, LH 117 (first part); 2) debt-slavery of daughters: Exod 21: 7, 8–11, LH 117 (second part); 3) child rebellion: Exod 21:15, 17, LH 192–193, 195; 4) injuries incurred during brawls: Exod 21:18–19, LH 206; 5) killing a person of lower class: Exod 21:20–21, LH 208; 6) causing a miscarriage: Exod 21:22–23, LH 209–214. For this analysis see Sanders, From Adapa to Enoch pp. 179-181; for a much more sweeping claim see Wright, Inventing God’s Law and for bibliography of critiques and debate see Sanders, ibid.

[2] Alhena Gadotti  “Gilgamesh, Enkidu, and the Netherworld” and the Sumerian Gilgamesh Cycle. Untersuchungen zur Assyriologie und Vorderasiatischen Archäologie. Boston and Berlin: Walter de Gruyter, 2014


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