Archive | Uncategorized RSS for this section

The New Relationship Between Words and Things in Iron Age Funerary Monuments

We have a remarkable tendency to assume that words, rather than things, tell the truth–at least when it comes to writing the history of religion. The Indologist Gregory Schopen pointed out the most concrete problems this prejudice for texts over archaeology causes for writing the history of Indian Buddhism. Here the preference for late, edited, and idealized scriptural sources over contemporary and unedited material evidence leads to straightforward historical errors. For example, while hundreds of inscriptions and excavated objects show that Indian monks owned and donated property, scholars have continued to insist this was not possible because it was prohibited in canonical texts. Similarly, Schopen points out, while a number of cemetaries have been excavated testifying to cases where monks took elaborate care of their dead, scholars have continued to insist that we cannot be sure of their funerary practices because the scriptures say nothing about it.

But the problem of isolating and privileging words over things goes beyond making for bad history: it creates a fundamental limit in our theory itself. If ideology “has no life outside the things that give it substance,” as the archaeologist Adam Smith—following Althusser–points out, why has the study of ideology so often denied its material dimensions, removing words and ideas from their physical lives? The habit is clear even in those fields of study that would seem best able to attune us to material patterns. Famously, to understand the meaning of objects in the ancient record archaeologists have analogized them to written text. Archaeological theorists such as Ian Hodder describe “reading” assemblages of cookware or grave goods as if they are books. To reduce the essence of culture to discourse and meaning is a interpretive shortcut that cuts out precisely what is most hermeneutically powerful and distinctive about archaeology. In fact, and not coincidentally, Fredric Jameson identified a interpretive problem very much like this as the most common hermeneutical challenge which which the postmodern cultural theory of the 70s attempted to grapple–the archaeology of knowledge in Foucault’s Mots et Choses.

Yet archaeological evidence from the history of ancient religions can provide a deeper perspective on this theoretical limit. Tracing when ritual objects gain the power to act or speak in the world of the living lets us see the role of language in the material world from a viewpoint that is not idealized but historicized, and can even cast light on the historicity of our own theory.

This paper examines how the changing relationship between words, things, and death is marked in the history of Levantine funerary monuments. Throughout the second millennium BCE a ritual division of labor was broadly shared from Syria to Mesopotamia in which one made things but performed words to invoke the continuing presence of dead ancestors. By the middle of the Iron Age, the work of craftsmen and ritualists reflected a change in the means by which the dead became immanent–through inscribed language. And not coincidentally, this was a time when peoples were made immanent through being addressed in the first vernacular script-languages.


Perhaps nowhere has the fetishization of the abstract over the concrete been as prominent as in the study of ancient religions. As Gregory Schopen points out, scholars of Indian Buddhism have consistently taken the heavily edited and often unplaceable texts of Buddhist scripture as their basis for understanding the religion, even or especially when they contradict the extensive unedited material and epigraphic remains that come directly from the times and places in question. Written ideals are persistently taken as more real than physical remains, precisely because they are written ideals: material evidence is by definition incidental to the essence of a religion. This startling but actually conventional viewpoint is made explicit in the archaeology of Christianity, where “… the material remains that characterize the early Christian archaeology of North Britain cannot be, paradoxically, in any way essentially and historically Christian” because “they are independent of the Word” (Schopen 1997:10-11). Schopen points out that this view of archaeology dovetails with classic Protestant views of religious language and concludes that “the old and ongoing debate between archaeology and textual studies is no­t–as is frequently assumed–a debate about sources” but “rather be a debate about where religion as an object of investigation is to be located” and in this regard “It is possible, perhaps, that the Reformation is not over after all.”(1997:14).

The theoretical problem of the location of religion is a symptom of a issue broader than religious studies. In fact it is strikingly similar to a problem identified by Deleuze and Guattari and Frederic Jameson in hermeneutics and Webb Keane in anthropology: the fact that language is best grasped as a pattern with its semantics set aside. As Deleuze and Guattari put it, “No one has been able to pose the problem of language except to the extent that linguists and logicians have first eliminated meaning; and the greatest force of language was only discovered once a work was viewed as a machine, producing certain effects, …But on condition that meaning be nothing other than use.” [Anti-Oedipus 109]. Jameson shrewdly noted that all of the now-classic postmodern responses to this problem, from Foucault and Derrida to Kristeva, involved some kind of renamed hermeneutics. He himself proposed that “the ideal of an immanent analysis of the text,… amounts less to a whoesale nullification of all interpretive activity than to a demand for the construction of some new and more adequate immanent or antitranscendent hermeneutic model…” [1981:23].

A stable relationship between words, things, and death seems to have held for an extended period across a Near Eastern cultural area stretching from Syria to Mesopotamia. A comparison of archaeological remains and written evidence for funerary ritual from the late third through the second millennium bce suggests a broadly shared ritual division of labor in which one made things but performed words to commemorate the dead and index their proximity. Long-term presence was marked by objects, renewed by short-term ritual acts [for the best documented 3rd millennium Syrian evidence see Archi, for an introduction to the shifts in iconography and ritual see Bonatz and Porter].

An idealized and schematic version of this solution to the problem of death is set out in the Old Babylonian Sumerian poem The Death of Bilgames:

Men, as many as are given names,

their statues have been fashioned since days of old,

and stationed in chapels in the temples of the gods,

so that their names, being read aloud, cannot be forgotten

–(lines 298-301 in the translation of Veldhuis, following George)

In related texts and archaeologically documented patterns, the problem of Death was understood to be two-pronged: a lack of presence and memory in the living world, and starvation in the underworld. A wide range of sites from Mesopotamia and Syria to the southern Levant centered rituals of naming and feeding the dead around monuments and other funerary loci—always uninscribed [Greenfield, Jonker, Sanders, Niehr].  Language was understood as a feature of realtime performance, not a long-term physical feature of objects. During this period archives happen to document the rituals, they make clear that the major role of language was in performance, not inscription. But crucially, parallel patterns of burial and monument construction are also archaeologically documented at sites without archives such as Tel Banat. Funerary objects played varied roles as loci, monuments, or participants but were typically defined as things to which language was momentarily offered, not sites on which language was materialized.

Sometime early in the Iron Age, craftspeople and ritualists initiated a shift in this semiotic ideology…

The Verdict of the Monuments

pink tank

There is a common conception that destroying monuments erases history. This is supposed to be bad for one of two reasons: either the big chunk of stone in question is the sacred reminder of a treasured past–a relic–or it gives a lesson, even a warning, from history–a museum piece. Either way, the object deserves our gratitude because of its capacity to admonish us: the elderly slab should be preserved to wag its finger at every new viewer from now til eternity.

But all these meanings happen to already be packed into the original Latin sense of monumentum, and provide equal justification for them to be destroyed by mobs. Etymology is often bullshit because words’ meanings are path-dependent: they shift for chaotic cultural and historical reasons. The Germanic root for “hound” meant “dog, in general” and the root for “dog” meant “a specific powerful breed of dog.” Their reversal doesn’t tell us much about the very being of dogs. But “monuments” are different. Latin monumentum was literally “something that reminds” -> “a tomb, votive offering, memorial record” from monēre “to admonish, warn, advise.”

Why do we set up carved rocks at great expense to “admonish, warn, and advise” us?  The brilliant French crackpot theorist George Bataille nailed the politics of monuments–what really makes them monumental–in a justly famous three-paragraph article from 1929:

“Architecture expresses the very being of societies, in the same way that human physiognomy is the expression of the being of individuals. But it is really the being of bureaucrats and officials that architecture expresses. In practice, only the ideal being of society, the one that orders and prohibits, expresses itself in architecture in the strict sense. Thus, the great monuments are raised up like dams, pitting the logic of majesty and authority against all troublemakers: it is in the form of cathedrals and palaces that Church and State speak and impose silence on the multitudes. In fact it is clear that monuments inspire socially acceptable behavior and often very real fear. The storming of the Bastille is symbolic of this state of affairs: it is difficult to explain this impulse of the mob other than by the animosity the people hold against the monuments which are their true masters.”

What makes certain public buildings and slabs of stone monumental is the power they have to order, intimidate, and scold the viewer to behave. And after enough of this, people sometimes want revenge: why else would the peasants and revolutionaries attack the Bastille itself?

Not all tall buildings or tombstones are monuments. You need to separate a thing’s monumentality–what it means politically–from its bare physical shape, because plenty of big objects don’t really play much of a monumental role. As the Chinese art historian Wu Hung writes, monumentality is “an integral element that lends a building, statue, or any large-scale thing a common, commemorative meaning.” Monuments are things that play a particular role in people’s memories. Wu points out that already in his 1903 “The Modern Worship of Monuments: Its Nature and Origins” the art historian Alois Riegl broadened the notion of “monument” to things that later acquired commemorative value, such as written documents like the Declaration of Independence. Indeed, he notes, the request after the Civil War to make the farmland and roads that made up the entire Gettysburg battlefield a national monument suggests that a monument can be of any form.

Monumentality, then, is a kind of social contract, but not one we’re allowed to freely enter into. An object gets its monumentality from a shared political relationship with a group of people, but this shared relationship may be as much one of intimidation as consent. What happens when one group of people insist that a heroic statue of a white man is a collective monument of their whole society, and commemorates a shared past, while another group doesn’t agree that this man is their hero, a chosen emblem of their past, that history did not happen like this or mean what the others say it meant? What if in that past the other group were defined as servile or as objects?

In the picture at the top, a Soviet tank was painted pink and had a gigantic–even monumental–dildo stuck on. An object can be changed from a monument to one thing to an anti-monument, or a monument to something else. But if the monument gives only one verdict, attempting to pass the same judgement on its viewers for all time, the only healthy response may be to tear it down.

*This piece was inspired by my work with the UCLA Near Eastern Studies graduate student Timothy Hogue, whose research led me to these ideas and which will result in a totally fresh view of the Ten Commandments as a cultural monument but who is definitely not responsible for the views here.

My new book series, The Ancient Word, is ready to go!

I’m proud to announce that I’m editing a new book series for Routledge with four amazing new works already under contract and the first ready to go to press!

The titles suggest what’s new about it:

Aaron Tugendhaft, Baal and the Politics of Poetry (in press).

Jacqueline Vayntrub, Beyond Orality: Performance and the Composition of Biblical Poetry. 

Alice Mandell, Cuneiform Culture and the Ancestors of Hebrew: Rethinking the Canaanite Amarna Letters.

Melissa Ramos, The Performance of Doom: Ritual in Deuteronomy.

This series is dedicated to consensus-challenging new work on biblical and ancient Near Eastern culture.  Its unifying theme is the power of philology—how ancient language worked in its own living context—to reveal how people of the remote past understood the supernatural and themselves. The books in the series will bridge the gap between technical monographs and broad explorations of central topics. Each one will aim to solve or change how we think about a key problem in biblical or ancient Near Eastern studies through masterful studies of ancient primary sources.

There was a time when the language of the ancient Near Eastern was thought to contain answers to vital intellectual concerns. The Romantic philosopher Herder once imagined an “archive of paradise” containing the first writing in the world from its oldest civilization: primordial texts that held keys to understanding human nature and historical change. In unearthing the remains of the ancient Near East, scholars found something tantalizingly like Herder’s archive–but it remains mostly unread. Herder’s search for answers has been replaced with “safe” techniques, from sweeping theories of oral societies to atomizing redaction criticism to monocausal legitimation theories that reduce all culture to power. Yet this archive retains great untapped potential to understand where we came from, patterns that will not go away, from the mysteries of ritual to the shock of terrorism to the power of revelation.

This series is focused on religion and language, both independently and when intertwined, as the most richly informative and longest-lasting aspects of ancient culture. In the form of enduring religious texts like the Hebrew Bible and rediscovered ones like the Egyptian Pyramid Texts, the data of ancient language can bring some of our earliest and most formative cultural models to light, helping us work through their hidden dimensions that may still persist in determining us. Each book will freshly consider a whole body of key data that is either unmined or has not had the right questions asked of it. And each will bring a new set of questions, unsettling or dismantling old paradigms where they have not provided adequate answers and suggesting new ones.

Some books in the series will include an online “digital humanities” aspect. This will range from brief popular versions of some chapters to digital philology such as primary sources, databases, and other information best visualized online. It will serve both to disseminate the book’s ideas and to engage the topic, writer, and broader discussion in the wider digital world.


Titles and topics

Aaron Tugendhaft, Baal and the Politics of Poetry. Narrating the victory of a divine hero who is not divinely loved, the Ugaritic Baal Cycle violates modern assumptions that the political purpose of ancient religion was to “legitimate” the current order. Instead, the epic draws on and challenges the language and values of Late Bronze Age diplomacy. These new discoveries shows us a way that myth is not just a reflection of society but a way of a reflecting on it.

Jacqueline Vayntrub, Beyond Orality: Performance and the Composition of Biblical Poetry. Why have scholars always struggled to understand biblical poetry on its own terms? This book suggests an answer based on how it is defined in the biblical texts themselves.

Alice Mandell, Cuneiform Culture and the Ancestors of Hebrew: Rethinking the Canaanite Amarna Letters. This is the first study to present the Canaanite Amarna letters as both the earliest known vocalized documents of Hebrew’s ancestors and as politically crafted works of verbal art in a Late Bronze Age scribal context.

Melissa Ramos, The Performance of Doom: Ritual in Deuteronomy. This book moves beyond a narrow view of Deuteronomy as an essentially scribal document to analyze the full range of ritual elements it shares with other Near Eastern treaties. Bringing a range of striking and never before considered Mesopotamian sources into consideration, it argues that Deuteronomy has its most plausible roots in late Iron Age and political ritual performance.



Safwat Marzouk and Seth Sanders, eds., Ancient Terrorism: Religion, Atrocity, and Resistance from Sumer to the Maccabees. Both ordinary people and experts are confused on how far back the roots of terrorism go and in what way religion motivates it. What do the earliest documents of political terror tell us about the nature and origins of this pattern?

Paul Gauthier, The Sources of Mesopotamian Religious Knowledge. This book will challenge the “scriptural” bias that still holds in much study of ancient religion. Most Mesopotamian knowledge about the supernatural world came not from reading texts, but from the careful observation of ritual actions. The observation and textualization of ritual drove both the creation of much Mesopotamian religious literature and its remarkable endurance over time.



Fear as a Hobby


I’ve been seeing “we’re so fucked” and “I’m shaking and cowering” posts from liberals for nearly 2 months how. What are you planning to say or do if and when this stuff you’re so scared to even think about actually happens, when it’s not just stories your friends retweeted? What do you think people do who already live in places where there’s a real chance of friends and family being shot or arrested every day?

These are questions worth spending some time with.

The most practical point I’ve seen from a political theorist lately is about what happens when your main way of thinking about the future is to talk about how afraid you are.

[T]his is why resisting the politics of fear is so important. Power like [Breitbart’s, as described here], resting in tweets, relies a lot on atmospherics. The purpose of that atmospherics is to magnify power: so that its wielder can hold that power in reserve, and thereby deploy it more efficiently, or because its wielder doesn’t have that much power in the first place, and needs to generate fear in order to make that power seem more potent than it is. Hobbes understood this all too well. So did the forces around Joe McCarthy. We need to understand it, too, and oppose it: not to cooperate with it, not to contribute to it, not to participate in it.


Is There Blood in my Hummus? Memory and National Taste


There are different ways you could look at the Jewish people–who share an official but not an actual language, a vast history spanning from the Levant to Morocco, Spain, India, China, and New Jersey, and a cuisine defined only by dietary laws most of us do not follow. I am curious about our shared memories, and I am reading cookbooks.

I am reading the intro to the cookbook from the best restaurant in Philadelphia, Zahav, which the author Michael Solomonov was spurred to write partly to commemorate the awful loss of his little brother at the very end of his army service, in Metula. He wanted to give everyone the chance to taste a welcoming, joyful, hybrid Israel, a “barely melted” melting pot, “that had nothing to do with politics or what you see on the evening news.” Despite the fact that I was warmly welcomed there and had far and away the best eggplant of my life there, this Israel does not exist for me. Although I lived there for four years on and off I could not possibly have such a memory of it although I agree that the cooking that people like Solomonov, Tamimi and Ottolenghi are bringing the world is one of the best things going. This is in key ways because unlike Solomonov I never ate with my brother there and my brother did not die there.

Other cookbooks, like the often surprising vegetarian Jerusalem by the Palestinian-Israeli team of Sami Tamimi and Yotam Ottolenghi, or the global ethnographic reminiscience The Book of Jewish Food by Claudia Roden, would lead other directions.

The notion of “memory” was helpful in attuning us to the creativity with which people relate to or create their past. But in my own field of Biblical Studies it was hard to separate from goalpost-moving, vagueness, or just plain cheating: precisely how do people “remember” things they never saw or participated in? Is “memory” (like the faves it displaced, “orality” and “tradition” (h/t Jacqueline Vayntrub for this crucial point) just any story we can’t verify?

Max Weber offers a discussion that raises the bar for memory: “The community of political destiny, i.e. above all of common political struggle of life and death, has given rise to groups with joint memories which have often had a deeper impact than the ties of merely cultural, linguistic, or ethnic community. It is this ‘community of memories’ which constitutes the ultimately decisive element of national consciousness”*

The implication: that to be a memory, not just a story, requires some in-person teeth, some rubble or scars. Something one person can point out to another. ‘Im ‘eshakhekh, Yerushalayim, tishkakh yamini “If I forget you, Jerusalem, may my right arm forget (how to move: to write, to play music, to fight)” (Psalm 137) Then again why should they all be scars? As with ritual sacrifice, which is often a lot less bloody than we imagine it, political memories may have more under the hood.

Maybe memory by itself is nothing. But the “community of memories” might be something else: Culture mediated–concretely and materially brought from the past into the present–along kinship lines. Weber and Benedict Anderson may limit it too narrowly when they see the state’s as being the only life or death struggles forming peoplehood. My one-line theoretical definition of the modern nation was: kinship instrumentalized in the shape of a state. But even now there are peoples formed or forming–black, native and perhaps others within the territory of the US–with a community of memories that do not dovetail with and want to take further forms than just state lines. For most of the history of the Jewish people, it was a community like these, and very different forms of memory make it remain vitally so today alongside its nation-state form.


*I stumbled across this in Gopal Balakrishnan’s great essay on the reissue of Anderson’s Imagined Communities, where many more fertile suggestions lie.

When your Advisor is not your Friend

Graduate school plays a huge role in the outcome of many students’ lives. They spend their 20s and sometimes their 30s preparing to dedicate themselves to lifetime careers of discovery and scholarship. Yet I sometimes see advisors carelessly phoning it in, and students taking their every word seriously because they don’t know any better. They wishfully assume that their advisors are their friends, constantly thinking of their best interests, rather than self-absorbed and self-interested bureaucrats of thought.

So here are three questions that may help inoculate against Stockholm Syndrome:

1. What’s their response to the current job market? It could come in various forms, from tailoring training and thesis topics to the jobs that are out there to encouraging students to explore promising “real world” careers to curating the cohorts they graduate so they are only producing limited groups of well-supported candidates with good shots at success. If your advisor has no well-thought-out and compelling response to the job market you will be entering, they are not your friend.

2. How do they make you feel about your work? A good advisor can come off as a tough coach, a cool aunt, or visionary sage, and good advisors always push you to do distinctive work of high standards. But they need to understand what you’re reaching for and help you reach it. If your advisor doesn’t see the point of your interests and project you shouldn’t be working with them.

3. Does your advisor stand up for people? On a small scale, do they return emails and do the important things for people on time? On a large scale, do they assert themselves to help people? In cases of glaring unfairness, sexual harassment, or discrimination, does your advisor use their tenure as it was intended–to do the right thing even if it’s challenging or unpopular? If your advisor does not go to bat for others they will probably not go to bat for you.


The Incirli “Human Sacrifice” Trilingual: Not a Trilingual about Human Sacrifice

First part: Front of the inscription*

Since the text of this incredibly interesting but horribly worn stela is not currently available in any digital form, including books or online journal articles, here is the text and translation, based on Steven Kaufman and Bruce Zuckerman’s careful work (S.A. Kaufman 2007. The Phoenician Inscription of the Incirli Trilingual: A Tentative Reconstruction and Translation, Maarav 14.2, 7–26). This is a very simplified version of Kaufmann’s edition, which should be consulted because it indicates many places where the characters are incompletely preserved.

I present here the front, from which the most text is preserved, along with a translation after his. I present the more obscure and uncertain passages in italics. Later I will add the other three sides and a more original translation.


  1. hgbl z mtn/t tkltʾplsr pʾl mlk ʾšr

This frontier is a gift of Tiglath-Pileser—Puʾul, king of Assyria,

  1. lmlk wlšpḥ mlk dnnym | hgbl gbl

to the king and the descendants of the king of the Danunians. This frontier has been the border

  1. pḥt (/ʾrṣ) ʿbr nhr wgbl kmḥ lmym swsdd šr

of the province (or land) of Across-the-River and Kummuh from the reign of Shamshi-Adad, ruler

  1. ʾšr wʿd kl ym tkltʾplsr pʾl ml[k]

of Assur, through the reign of Tiglath-Pileser—Puʾul,

  1. ʾšr rb | hgbl [z] gbl hr [g]rgm wpḥty

Great Kin[g] of Assyria. [This] frontier is the border between the mountains of [Gu]rgum and my province,

6. zʾ(/hʾ) ḥdšt ʿd bʾ pḥt ʾšr lhgbl z

this new one up to where the Assyrian province reaches it, through this region

  1. lmʿbr lbt trtn kbʾ nhr sns ʿd

from across the Turtanu’s dynastic region along the River Sinis, up to

  1. [h]r [ʾ]rrṭ      ʾnk wryks mlk z bt mp[š]

the [moun]tains of [U]rarṭu. I am Warikis, king of the House of Mopsos

  1. ʿbd m[l]k [tk]ltʾplsr mlk ʾšr mlk qw

servant of king T[ig]lathpileser, king of Assyria, king of Que

  1. mlk bt mpš wkl [   ]t ḥt wʿd lbnn

king of the house of Mopsos and all [ ] Hittite country up to the Lebanon

  1. w kn mrd bkl mt ḥ[t] wzbḥ mlk ʾrpd

There was a rebellion throughout the Hittitle country and the king of Arpad

  1. lyʿn hdd mlk wgzr mkpr k ʾrpd

sacrificed for the benefit of Hadad-Melek (or: as a mulk-offering for Hadad) and redeemed (the human sacrifice) with butchered animal parts because Arpad

  1. pḥd mlk ʾm/šr [xx] wʿṣ ḥkm l/wʾmr

feared (a living molkomor/the king of Assyria. He arose, a wise man, and said)

  1. km ḥq mlk ʾrpd wḥlb ʾl tgzr/l ʾd[m]

“According to the law of the King of Arpad and Aleppo, do not sacrifice a human being

  1. […]ʾl tpḥd kʾm kpr ʾš pḥtk ʾl yḥr[b/m]

[…] fear not, rather offer a substitute sacrifice so he will not destroy your province..”


*Huge thanks to Chip Hardy, Philip Schmitz, and Sanna Aro-Valjus for helping me understand the text; errors are mine.



New workshop on Culture contact and the history of ideas



I’ll be organizing what looks to be a wonderful workshop at the 62nd Rencontre Assyriologique in Philadelphia this summer, July 12-15, on

Culture contact and the history of ideas: Comparing scribal ideologies in the Persian and Hellenistic periods

An area of increasing shared interest connecting Assyriology with the rest of ancient Near Eastern and Mediterranean studies is the concept of scribal culture: how scribal practices and goals may have shaped the worldviews of ancient writers. So far the most influential theories  have been proposed by biblicists (often based on secondary sources) and assumed a common “ancient Near Eastern scribal culture.” But recent work in Assyriology, Classics, and early Judaism on ancient education, textuality, and intellectual history is transforming what had been a uniform and static picture into a surprisingly varied one.
This workshop focuses on a uniquely rich database for the interaction and comparison of ancient scribal cultures: the Persian and Hellenistic near east, but takes a new methodological direction by focusing on the scribes’ own worldviews. It will build on the groundbreaking new research and data of the past decade in how the languages, scribal traditions, and political conditions of the Near East came to be shared, but move beyond simple questions of influence toward deeper questions of intellectual history. For example, if Francesca Rochberg is correct that Babylonian intellectuals did not believe in nature, or an inherent gap between nature and culture, as in the Greek antinomy between physis and nomos, what happens when Babylonian culture is created and transmitted in a Hellenistic Greek environment? How can we understand the shared elements of early Jewish and Mesopotamian hermeneutics? By exploring how culture contact changed scribes’ ontologies and hermeneutics, we will better understand the creative new aspects of ancient thought that emerged in the Persian and Hellenistic periods.
Planned participants:
Jacobo Myerston, UC San Diego
Laurie Pearce, UC Berkeley
Annette Reed, University of Pennsylvania
Seth Sanders, UC Davis
Kathryn Stevens, Durham University

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.

Were Babylonian and Judean Revelation the Same Type of Knowledge?

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.