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)





Table of Contents for From Adapa to Enoch: Scribal Culture and Religious Vision in Judea and Babylon


Chapter 1   Heavenly Sages and the Mesopotamian Scribal Ideology of Continuity

Chapter 2 “I Am Adapa!” The Divine Personae of Mesopotamian Scribes

Chapter 3   Ezekiel’s Hand of the Lord: Judahite Scribal Reinventions of Heavenly Vision

Chapter 4   Enoch’s Knowledge and the Rise of Apocalyptic Science

Chapter 5   Aramaic Scholarship and Cultural Transmission: From Public Power to Secret Knowledge

Chapter 6 “Who is Like Me Among the Angels?” Judean Reinventions of the Scribal Persona


Blood for the Soul of Reagan: Religious Studies as Leftover 80’s Postmodernism

For the second Republican debate,

Ronald Reagan set the agenda, framed the issues and animated the candidates. …And as always he owned the visuals. It was his venue—the Reagan Library—and his backdrop, Air Force One.

Did Reagan “animate” the candidates like some possessing spirit? Saying you have something of Reagan’s spirit in you lets the aspiring candidate try to inhabit his persona. It surely involves admiration, but it most decisively involves the chance to step into a public role. Almost four thousand years before Reagan became president, the most famous kings of Mesopotamia, Sargon and Naram-Sin were sacrificed to as dead ancestors by Amorite kings of Mari who bore no relation to them. And for similar reasons: Amorite kings Zimri-Lim wanted to be a new Sargon, or at least win his support.

A couple of centuries later a later Amorite ritual, the sacrificial liturgy known as the “Genealogy of the Hammurapi Dynasty” builds a coalition of political forces–some dead, some living–with the current king at the center:

(sacrifice to honor:)

the reign of the Amorites, the reign of the nomads..

the reign of (all those) not recorded on this tablet and the soldier who fell while on perilous campaigns for their lord,

princes, princesses, all persons from east to West who have neither caretaker nor anyone to invoke your memory:

Come! Eat this! Drink this! And bless Ammisaduqa, son of Ammiditana, king of Babylon!

Religious display is equally great among political candidates, yet the soul of Reagan is never summoned to eat or drink. In fact Reagan’s soul is rarely invoked. It is optional at best, more usually invisible. In politics you no longer have to sacrifice to someone, offer food for their soul to eat, to step into their role or take on their mantle as leader. Reagan’s memory may be sacred, but neither his appetites nor his rituals are. His cult, like that of Justin Bieber’s “beliebers” or the Rock Horror Picture Show, is a figure of speech. Religion and politics connect differently now because their relationship has been drastically reshaped.

The tools of philology let us read this ritual again after 3,600 years and after its publication, let us correlate it with other forms of Amorite ancestor worship where there were literal cults for dead kings. They show that claims to ancestry through offerings to the dead were key tools of rule. Political philosophy and the history of religions hold an enduring interest in the relationship between sovereignty and sacrifice, as writers from Kantorowicz to Agamben make clear.

While this seems like a vital question for archaeology, anthropology, and political thought, it no longer seems like a question for religious studies. This is because the theory of religious studies seems peculiarly uninteresting for this question, to the point where it’s not clear it makes sense to even ask for its perspectives. Why? Because its energy today is focused so intensely on staging the asking of questions about itself: it has come to specialize more and more in intellectual self-dramatization, “a poetic wrestling with the nature of its naming”

Iconic of the trend toward self-study in religious studies is the way that a book series named after a classification, claiming to “the most innovative works in the study of religion today” could be subject to attack for being inattentive to classification before publishing a single word.  The study of modern classification itself is a brand attacked for being unreflective classification. Constructionism is still too essentialist. To be sure, classifying something–say, as being something as politically correct as essentialism–is always political. But politics includes the most piddling and miniscule acts, and the critique of classifiers is an act of office politics.

JZ Smith talks about a great experiment of allowing religion into the academy, but maybe he performed a second one in his own time: after discovering there was no “there” there in Frazer’s Golden Bough, its central myth nothing but a jest and riddle, he wanted to see if he could nonetheless offer that fact as a methodology–a jest and riddle of his own?

to be continued in part II

How to Build a Long-Term Text in the Ancient Near East

I am happy to report that the American Oriental Society session I organized on March 14, 2015 was well-attended and produced intense, substantive discussion. Every presentation I heard broke new ground and worked toward setting a new standard in how we understand the creation and life of the world’s earliest and best-documented literatures.
A selection of the papers will constitute a special issue of the Journal of Ancient Near Eastern Religions and each, along with key additions including “On Lies, Rumors and Rejected Traditions” by Ronnie Goldstein of Hebrew University, are planned for a book.

Ably chaired by Richard Averbeck, the presentations were:

1. Jay Crisostomo, University of California, Berkeley
“The Lexical and the Literary: Intertextuality and Composition in the Old Babylonian Curriculum”

2. Paul-Alain Beaulieu, University of Toronto
”Babylonian Chronicles and the Stream of Tradition”

3. John Wee, University of Chicago
“Straight from the Ummânu’s Mouth: Serialization, Classification, and Cuneiform Text Commentary”

4. Hannah Marcuson, University of Chicago
“Ritual Transmission in Hittite Anatolia”

5. Antonio J. Morales, Freie Universität Berlin
“Text-building and transmission of Pyramid Texts in the Third Millennium BCE: Iteration, Objectification, and Change”

6. Foy Scalf, University of Chicago
”From Beginning to End: Funerary Text Creation in Greco-Roman Egypt”

7. Aaron Tugendhaft, University of Chicago
”Were Alphabetic Cuneiform Texts Transmitted and Why Might it Matter?”

8. Seth Sanders, Trinity College
”Joseph, Ahikar and Enoch: Towards a History of Hebrew and Aramaic Narrative Technique in the First Millennium BCE”

Bondage as Liberation: The Political Theology of Slavery in Late Iron Age Law

–to be given at the special ASOR/SBL Joint Session on “Assyria and the Levant in the Iron Age” in November 2015.

Uniquely among biblical law collections, the Covenant Code (Ex 21-24) begins with slavery, and then moves to the  addressee’s active enslavement of a fellow Hebrew. This striking, even outrageous feature of the oldest Hebrew law collection has never been satisfactorily explained: If the Exodus is about liberation, why does the first detailed set of laws God reveals emphasize its opposite? While elements of the Covenant Code are clearly modeled on Mesopotamian legal discourse, this remarkable feature of its structure cannot be explained by Assyrian influence, and for a very interesting reason: no cuneiform legal collection begins with slave law either.

The text thus raises both a problem of textual composition and a problem of political theology. The first, formal problem is the role of slave laws in the structure of the Covenant Code: why begin with slavery when this theme never begins any other biblical or cuneiform law collection? The second, and more disturbing, problem is political: uniquely within the biblical and cuneiform collections, the Covenant Code presents the law from the point of view of one actively enslaving his fellow. This separates it from the debt-relief law of which it is a part in the Laws of Hammurapi, on the one hand, and Deuteronomy and Leviticus, on the other.

This paper places Judahite and Mesopotamian slave laws in a comparative historical trajectory, arguing that the two literary cultures used the same scribal topos to think differently about sovereignty. By closely investigating a critical point where ancient Near Eastern scribal cultures do not share a common phenomenology, it proposes a solution that builds on but moves beyond the idea of Judahite borrowing and subversion of Assyrian literature.

The panel includes a stellar lineup of

Jacob Lauinger of Johns Hopkins University

Sara Milstein of the University of British Columbia

Peter Machinist of Harvard University

Apocalyptic Science


Strangely, the earliest known Jewish apocalypse is also the earliest known Jewish scientific work. The Aramaic fragments of the Astronomical Book of Enoch, composed in the 3rd century BCE or earlier and found at Qumran, represent the first appearance of astronomy and mathematics in Jewish literature. But this science comes in a vision. The angel Uriel takes the patriarch Enoch on a heavenly journey where he sees the clockwork of the universe: the gates through which the sun, winds and heavenly bodies regularly move.

What did scientific and apocalyptic knowledge have to do with each other, and why did they take the stage together? To us, apocalypses seem like the opposite of empiricism and sober analysis–epics of cosmic paranoia that presage both Kabbalistic visions and militant fanaticism. But the maverick historian of religion Jacob Taubes already suggested a different analysis in his remarkable 1947 Occidental Eschatology:

The science of apocalypticism can be defined as the exact numerical calculation of the end of time. It is intended to provide absolute assurance to faith and hope.

Was quantitative precision bound to eschatological vision from the beginning? Close linguistic analysis of the Qumran fragments, when placed in the history of biblical exegesis, help us answer this question. A single Aramaic phrase–which for interesting reasons appears in no modern translation– connects the history of science, apocalypticism, and knowledge itself in ancient Judaism.

The Bible shows no interest in science: in fact, Deuteronomy (4:19) warns the Israelites about the dangers of astronomy. Conservative attitudes are still reflected in book of Daniel (completed in the second century BCE), which asserts the uselessness of foreign knowledge in comparison to the wisdom God reveals (e.g. Dan 1:20, 2:19). But already before the Bible’s completion, some Jewish writers were adopting new attitudes toward knowledge of the physical world. By the third century BCE, Biblical patriarchs like Enoch were represented as learning and teaching about numbers and the stars.

Recent scholarship has shown us how the astronomy and mathematics of Enoch derive from Babylonian scholarship, the world’s longest-running empirical scientific tradition. Enoch is not alone: the Aramaic Levi Document, another early visionary work found at Qumran, uses clearly Babylonian mathematics. This was not despised “foreign wisdom:” these scientific works, with their Babylonian roots, were accepted by the Jews of Qumran alongside the Torah and revelations of Moses. By the first century BCE, the Qumran community was drawing on this astronomy to make their calendars. And these texts are only the earliest evidence of a pattern of systematic cosmological speculation in Jewish tradition that continued to evolve through the middle ages in texts like the Pirqei d’Rabbi Eliezer.

Does Judaism enter the history of science here, in a kind of Hellenistic renaissance? To the eminent scholar of Midrash and mysticism, Philip Alexander, these cases of serious interest in mathematics and astronomy suggest the dawn of a kind of scientific thought in Judaism. Alexander has been followed by a set of scholars who convened at NYU to begin integrating early Jewish thought into the history of science–and science into the history of Judaism.

Early Jewish thinkers would have traced systematic knowledge of the universe further back: the Priestly source of the Torah shares, with Babylonian scholarship, an interest in precise categorization and description of the physical world. These appear in the creation account of Genesis 1-2:4a, the temple revelation of Exodus 25-31 (cf. Ex 35-40 and Ezekiel 40-48), and Leviticus 12-15, with its rules for observing physical signs as symptoms of the skin disease sara’at. But the Priestly source does not assume the opposition between nature and culture found in Greek philosophy. God created the universe with the same type of commands that were then transmitted to Moses: rather than an opposition between nature and culture there is a homology between created and commanded. In the Priestly worldview, the cosmos and the temple are analogous and show a fascinating coherence: “My Sabbaths you shall observe/And my sanctuary you shall revere: I am the Lord.” (Lev. 19:30 and 26:2)

Exodus’ revelation about the temple is a divine speech that specifies the precise measurements and materials of the tabernacle, the ritual prototype of the temple, and its implements (Ex 25-31). Remarkably, it presents its information not as words but as a visual model:   “Exactly as I am showing you (כְּכֹל אֲשֶׁר אֲנִי מַרְאֶה אוֹתְךָ)—the pattern (תבנית) of the Tabernacle and the pattern of all its furnishings — so shall you make it” (Ex 25:9). Note that here Moses does not “see” the pattern on his own, but rather God causatively shows him, in the hiphil (causative) of the standard Biblical Hebrew verb of seeing, ראה.

And when the event occurs, all descriptions of Moses’ vision of the Tabernacle are marked by being narrated with syntactically passive forms. (Ex 25:40; effectively, Ex 27:8). Moses is shown the Tabernacle’s rules: Ex 26:30 reads:

“Then set up the Tabernacle according to its rule (כְּמִשְׁפָּטוֹ), that you were shown (הָרְאֵיתָ) on the mountain.”

The grammar of seeing in the tabernacle vision denies Moses’ epistemological agency: he does not even see the tabernacle under his own power, but is passively shownliterally caused to see by God.

How is cosmic knowledge gained in the first apocalypse? Surprisingly, many of the new pieces of Babylonian astronomical knowledge that Enoch learns in the Astronomical book are learned the same way: they parallel the passive syntax of Moses’ tabernacle vision in Exodus. They are framed as חשבון אחרן אחזית “I was shown (literally caused to see) another calculation.” (preserved in the fragmentary passage 4Q209 f25 l 3, the phrasing of which must underly both Enoch 74:1-2 and 78:1). Grammatically a verbal phrase based on the passive of the causative of חזי, here we see the “scientific” categories of observation and calculation brought together in a new way. Enoch neither observes nor calculates the formulae himself. Rather, just as Moses is caused to see the cosmic rule (משפט) of the tabernacle, so Enoch is caused to see the calculations that order the spheres. And this phrase is not isolated in the Astronomical Book but grammatically parallel with the way mythical cosmic geography is encountered in Enoch’s other early otherworldly journey in the Book of the Watchers (4Q204 f1xii:30 // 4Q206 f1xxvi:17 = 1 En 32:1, 4Q204 f1xii:26-28 = I En 31:1-2)

The editors of this earliest collection of Enochic works drew on the image, and grammar, of Moses’ passively gained vision–with the passive of the causative of the standard Biblical Hebrew verb of seeing–to frame Enoch’s own passively gained visions with the passive of the causative of the standard Aramaic verb of seeing. If the language of knowledge in Aramaic Enoch is both a reference to the Priestly Tabernacle vision and a distinctive editorial device shared between the Astronomical Book and the Book of the Watchers, then the Aramaic evidence bears on an old question about the creation of early Enochic literature. It means that the creators of this early literature drew more subtly and deeply on the language and imagery of the Pentateuch than has previously been acknowledged.

This changes our view of how Enoch’s authors used scripture and talked about revelation. Categorical statements in the standard Enoch commentary that apart from Genesis “the rest of the Pentateuch is of little interest to the Enochic authors” will need to be revised. Yet no modern edition or tranlation of Enoch consistently passes this information on to the reader. Because they prefer to base their readings on the fully preserved Ethiopic manuscripts, which have lost the passive grammar, modern editions generally render “I saw.”

The original Aramaic (as well as its antecedent Biblical Hebrew) grammar reveals something new about early apocalyptic knowledge. Enoch’s visions are, of course, a mode of revelation. But there is a more specific epistemic value that vision has–grammatically, verbs of seeing function in Aramaic (as well as modern English) as evidentials–a linguistic category indicating the source and certainty of the speaker’s knowledge. Evidentials–such as “I see that you are right or “she saw that the test had succeeded,”–encode the speaker’s epistemology, how they know what they know.

We cannot really oppose a category of revelation to a category of science in the conceptual world of early Enochic literature because the evidential grammar of Enoch’s visions entailed that the exact knowledge he learned was both evidence of divine order and something that God causes the knower to see. This framing device and its grammar subverts any opposition between revelation, as a mode of knowledge based on the claim “God revealed X,” and science, as based on the claim “I observed or calculated X. ”

Epistemologically, what we see at Qumran is a “revealed science”–exact knowledge of the created world framed as divine discourse, with the role of human agency suppressed. The way the story is told, the specific language of knowledge, helps explain how it emerged in a way that could claim to be continuous with earlier authoritative Jewish genres.

It also might explain why early apocalypticists produced no new “science” of their own: its framing as revelation foreclosed these knowledge production mechanisms. Did these apocalypses, then, succceed or fail as science? The evidence suggests something else: they laid the foundation for the different but quite productive intellectual agenda of universal history. To return to Taubes’ provocative concept, “apocalyptic science” suggests why the Astronomical Book could have been both the earliest known Jewish scientific work and the earliest Jewish apocalypse. The real legacy of apocalyptic science may not have been in what we call science at all, but rather in a new vision of history. As Taubes wrote,

The events of the world are written on the face of the divine clock, so the point is to follow the course of world history to determine the hour of the aeon. Apocalypticism is the foundation which makes universal history possible.

At least according to the Astronomical Book, apocalyptic revelation was experience, but not in any ineffable private way. On the contrary, Enoch’s revelations were religious experience in its etymological sense of experiment, “observation as the source of knowledge” (from Old French esperience “experiment, proof, experience,” from Latin experientia “knowledge gained by repeated trials”). It is crucial to see here what the concept of religious experience was created to protect, from what. As Wayne Proudfood has demonstrated, the category arose in the 18th and 19th centuries as a way to defend the validity of religious accounts against scientific claims, at the cost of their authority. Revelation moved from being true to being merely legitimate, or at least unembarassing. This is why the scienticity of early mystical accounts needed to be forgotten: to protect them from a later opponent and an anachronistic charge. But reconstructing this lost science reveals something essential: how visionary experience worked as evidence of the apocalypses’ accounts of history and justice.

Note: This article presents arguments from my book, From Adapa to Enoch: Scribal Culture and Religous Vision in Judea and Babylonia, forthcoming in Mohr Siebeck’s Texts and Studies in Ancient Judaism series. It summarizes a more extensive piece published in the proceedings of the Ancient Jewish Sciences conference coedited by Jonathan Ben-Dov and I; it was originally published in AJS Perspectives (2012) 16-17 and appears here with a few typos corrected.

The Early History of Scriptural Unreason

In an influential Romantic theory, unreason is connected with the internal and the ineffable: poetry, spirituality, and even insanity are problematically intertwined as the opposites of reason and law. Early Judaism had somewhat the opposite problem: a Law that could appear fragmentary, mythological, and eminently unreasonable. Even as Philo of Alexandria recognized that the mind is not guided by rationality alone, most of his works are devoted to rationalizing the Torah.

Philo exemplifies a broader issue in the early history of Judaism: for a number of thinkers, it was precisely the written law—an external authority, not a passionate outburst from within– that confronted reason with its most challenging problems. Traditional Jewish religious reasoning is haunted by the ghost of scripture itself: a text claimed to be perfect and complete yet riddled with gaps and contradictions. The immensely fruitful problems that resulted are well known: From the Mishnah’s sabbath laws with so little scriptural support that they ‘hang by a thread’ to the creative philology of Midrash, classic Jewish argumentation must often either harmonize the Torah itself or depart from it through new legal and narrative constructions. Philo was surely right that no human mind is purely rational, but is there a special kind of unreason associated with Jewish revelation, and if so how did it arise?

Here is where we can grasp Hebrew literature’s original aporia, in the gap between the Torah and its readers that made it sometimes seem so problematic and irrational. How did the Torah first become a puzzle to its early tradents, a problem to be solved? Since the earliest works of biblical interpretation, the Torah has provoked writers who must either avoid or struggle with the strangeness of its story, where each major event from creation to Sinai happens in several incompatible ways, making it formally unlike other major ancient literatures. Scholars have typically sought literary solutions to the historical problem of the Bible’s form by rereading the Bible itself. Consensus has been achieved on the Pentateuch’s main thread: a Priestly work with a single version of Israel’s story. But over 200 years of literary study has achieved little agreement beyond this.

I see an opportunity in this impasse. Drawing on early Jewish exegesis and ancient Near Eastern evidence gives us the chance to place the Pentateuch’s strangeness in literary history. The Pentateuch’s unusual formal features have been widely recognized but never really theorized, and theorizing them puts a new range of historical data at our service. If the Pentateuch departs from other known ancient Near Eastern forms, widely recognized Pentateuchal sources such as the Priestly work do resemble these common forms. And despite evidence of exegesis in the development of biblical texts themselves, Jewish interpreters from Jubilees to Philo often found the resulting doubled stories quite troubling. This suggests that Pentateuchal composition was as different from later Jewish literary values as it was from earlier Near Eastern ones. These contrasts entail a chronology of ancient Hebrew literary values: from coherence to comprehensiveness to harmonization.

My project begins by considering a common critique of biblical criticism: does it anachronistically impose modern values of coherence on ancient Near Eastern cultures that lacked them? Part 1, “Other Bibles,” asks if the Pentateuch’s incoherence was normal in its time. A comparison suggests that it was not. In Gilgamesh’s Flood, the most prominent ancient Near Eastern version, each of six key events happen once. By contrast, in Genesis 6-9 each event happens twice, always in two distinct versions. In contrast with Tigay’s pioneering Empirical Models for Biblical Criticism, I argue that neither Gilgamesh nor comparable Mesopotamian texts show anything like Genesis’ doubling. As a cycle of preexisting texts collected into one coherent narrative, Gilgamesh resembles not the Pentateuch but sources such as the Priestly work. As with Aramaic and Ugaritic narrative, early Hebrew literature shared a common Near Eastern value of coherence. The Torah’s creators reworked their texts in an unusual way according to a new value of comprehensiveness, in which a unified view of God’s nature and actions was not a goal. With its systematic interweaving of conflicting ancient material, the Torah resembles a scholarly collection more than a theological document.

After the Pentateuch’s composition, its preference for comprehensiveness over coherence began to trouble readers who expected texts about God to be systematic, coherent, or even perfect. Part 2, “How the Torah Became Strange,” explores why and how the first known biblical interpreters set about reconciling its contradictions. Treatments of the Creation and Flood narratives by early Jewish interpreters shows how strange the Torah had grown. Texts like Jubilees, Philo’s writings on Genesis, and Josephus’ Jewish Antiquities adopted conflicting strategies, ranging from omission to harmonization to allegorical explanation. Similarly, legal texts began to undergo extensive harmonization. This process is exemplified in the Temple Scroll, which conflates ritual law from across the Pentateuch into what Bernard Levinson calls “a more perfect Torah.”

Part 3, “The Hebrew Dominant,” theorizes these changing expectations with a concept from the linguist Roman Jakobson: the dominant. This is the shifting criterion that makes literature literature, “the focusing component of a work of art: it rules, determines, and transforms the remaining components.” It explains why we see coherence not only in the first stage of Hebrew literature but also in the third. At this literature’s knowable beginnings, which created the Pentateuch’s building blocks, the value of coherence drove the integration of individual stories into larger arcs. After the Torah was completed this old value reemerged in expectations involving perfection and divine origin. Harmonization became the new—but often missing–lynchpin for the unity of Hebrew texts.

What I will ultimately be exploring is how the new theological criteria of coherence and order made the fragmentary and mythological aspects of the Torah begin to seem so disturbing. The Hebrew Law troubles Jewish reason at what should be its central pillar, its nomos. The result is the dialectic that shaped the earliest Hebrew literature.

Bible Zombies: Afterlife, Underworld and Resurrection in the Bible and Ancient World

(new course, not ancient epidemic or contemporary critique)

Trinity College January Term 2015

ezkiel bones

How old is the idea of life after death? Why were ancient Near Eastern zombies usually friendly? In this intensive class we’ll study the archaeology of death, as well the Bible, the Egyptian Book of the Dead and the Epic of Gilgamesh. We’ll find out where biblical ideas of the afterlife came from, learn why most ancient people would not have wanted to go to heaven, and find out what they wanted instead. 

Class will include field trips to an old local graveyard as well as the Met’s amazing array of Greek and Egyptian funerary monuments where the dead eat with the living…without eating them.

Is There a Text in the Class? The Babylonian Talmud’s Intertwined Textual and Linguistic Histories

In a theoretically fascinating review of Elizur Bar-Asher Siegel’s Introduction to the Grammar of Jewish Babylonian Aramaic, (Münster: Ugarit-Verlag, 2013), Yeshiva University biblicist and linguist Aaron Koller describes the radically different possible starting points for studying the language of the Bavli–and sometimes, how we can even know what it says:

Bar-Asher Siegal argues…that there are no really reliable manuscripts for the Bavli…Whereas [Matthew] Morgenstern contends that there are such texts, but they are texts not seriously studied by Kutscher – namely, the Early Eastern manuscripts – Bar-Asher Siegal’s claim is that there are no manuscripts that can be utilized as the “primary texts” due to their exceptional reliability. What that means in practical terms is that each and every linguistic phenomenon, from orthography to morphology to syntax, has to be investigated thoroughly and independently in all of the manuscripts…

[By contrast with Morgernstern] Eljakim Wajsberg has said that there are some “actually good” manuscripts of the Bavli, but apparently is confident in only two: a Yemenite manuscript in Oxford of Sukkah, and a Geniza fragment of Bava Metsia‘.

This would mean that every truly significant linguistic problem in the Bavli must be studied in somewhat the same way as Dennis Pardee describes Ugaritic: a hermeneutic circle between the philology, which raises questions that encourage us to reconsider the manuscripts, and the manuscript readings, which can help us rethink the philology. The circle need not be vicious: the point is rather that we need to make arguments rather than simply point to forms or readings.

Among the fascinating problems relevant to the study of the Hebrew Bible and its language, two further issues stand out: the question of internal linguistic diversity, and the minimal nature of verbal marking, which does not specify tense, mood and aspect in the same way as some Indo-European languages seem to.

On the first, Koller notes:

One of the theoretical points made by the author which constantly accompany the analysis is that the text of the Bavli is a problematic witness for [Jewish Babylonian Aramaic]. This is for two reasons. First, the Bavli seems to reflect different dialects…

but second and more fundamentally,

the Bavli may not reflect JBA because scribes often try to mask developments within colloquial language in their written texts. When manuscripts differ between a more archaic and a later form, it often cannot be known whether the text originally had the older form and this was later mistakenly updated, or whether it original reflected the newer form and was then mistakenly “corrected” to the older form.

Here he cites a striking example from Bar-Asher Siegal

If this situation reflects the actual forms of JBA, then clearly the two phenomena could not reflect one stage in one language, since either /y/ elided or its morphological role was reanalyzed. Thus, the various forms should either reflect different historical stages or two dialects. This is another example where JBA regularly reflects more than one linguistic system.

Second, the fact that after centuries of study scholars still do not agree on such basic points about the verbal system as whether the prefix-form of the verb marks indicative or irrealis should provoke some rethinking:

Here Bar-Asher Siegal parts ways with most older presentations, and denies that the prefix conjugation expresses the irrealis mood; he also argues that the verb הו”י, in different forms, serves to mark the tense of imperfective verbs as past or future.

To my mind, the problem and the most promising direction for its solution is summed up in the incisive statements of Holger Gzella, “Some general remarks on interactions between aspect, modality, and evidentiality in Biblical Hebrew” (Folia Orientalia, 2012:225-232, in line with earlier comments of Ed Greenstein on Ugaritic). Verbal forms in languages with lighter verbal morphology like the classical Semitic ones should not be straightjacketed into the categories of old-fashioned school grammar, but rather may map onto broader functional ranges where tense, mood and aspect intersect in various ways, rather than simple one-to-one functions.


Could This Be the Most Pretentious Semitic Philology Footnote of the 21st Century?

…because if not I’m just gonna keep adding to it ‘ti it is.

[10] Joosten 2002’s arguments, based on the theory of Kuryłowicz 1973 that tense is the first axis of opposition in all verbal systems, would imply that archaic Hebrew could not have had a preterite-imperfective-anterior system. But it is based on the extremely powerful assumption that no system lacking morphological tense-marking can have morphological aspect-marking. There are at least two serious objections to this assumption. The first is that it does not consider widely-known counterevidence, such as the best-documented early stage of an ancient Semitic language, Old Babylonian, in which a preterite iprus ~ durative iparras ~ perfect iptaras opposition is widely recognized (e.g. Huenergard and Woods 2004). Second, it proposes to confirm Kuryłowicz’s theory with an examination of the very system under dispute (2002:52), which runs the risk of an obscurum per obscurius explanation, since two centuries of scholarly debate have not brought agreement on this patter (for an important example of the continuing debate see Pardee 2012 with n23). At the risk of attempting to cut a large and old Gordian knot with a single quick blow, I would question how scholars as careful as Joosten and Pardee, with precisely the same data set and the benefit of 200 years of scholarship from Gesenius to Driver, can continue come to flatly opposite conclusions about the entire CBH prose verbal system. And I would suggest that the solution lies in the fact that ancient Semitic deixis, both spatial (cf. the frequent lack of a morphological distal-proximal (“this” vs. “that”) distinction, e.g. in Hebrew, Aramaic and Akkadian demonstrative pronouns) and verbal, tends to rely more heavily on implicature than the Indo-European languages from which all of these scholars from Gesenius and Driver to Joosten and Pardee derive their categories. The knot would then lie in the unavoidable pragmatics of implicature: precisely because of their linguistic and analytical competence, these scholars will necessarily produce comprehensive and consistent readings of the (from an Indo-European viewpoint) always morphologically under-indicated tense and aspect of CBH.