Review: “Guide to the Study of Ancient Magic” edited by David Frankfurter

Frankfurter2019David Frankfurter (editor). Guide to the Study of Ancient Magic. Religions in the Graeco-Roman World. Volume 189. Leiden: Brill, 2019. XIX + 797. 

Guide to the Study of Ancient Magic analyzes magic expansively, including a wide range of traditions and methodologies. It is divided into four parts. Part One provides a general introduction to the volume, framing magic as a category which has utility. Part Two suggests that magic should be understood as a form of illegitimate ritual. Each entry within Part Two describes magic as such and avoids using the term “magic,” focusing on constructing the emic perspective. It covers Mesopotamia, Iran, Egypt, Greece, ancient Israel and Early Judaism, Rome and the Roman Empire, early Christianity, and Roman and Byzantine Egypt. Part Three offers analyses of objects and texts historically called magical, each chapter providing fresh analysis and an overview of the history of scholarship. Magic items and objects include the Greco-Egyptian magical papyri, Christian spells and manuals from Egypt, binding spells, Jewish amulets, magic bowls, and magic, gems, figurines and images in ritual practice, textual amulets and writing traditions, and ritual objects in buildings. Finally, Part Four examines “magic as a quality or dynamic of words, texts, artifacts, persons, ritual procedures, or socials situations” (25). Magic is approached from the perspective of speech acts, writing, materiality, mysticism, theurgy, local application of an authoritative tradition, and social tension.

Overall, the volume is an excellent introduction to the theory of magic and ways that magic is practiced through time and space. Notable contributions include each introduction to regional forms of magic (illegitimate ritual) in chapters 4-11, David Frankfurter’s discussion of “magic” as a form of local ritual drawing from an authoritative tradition, and Sarah Iles Johnston’s discussion of the relationship between theurgy and magic. Though readers may have minor quibbles concerning points by authors, by and large Guide to the Study of Ancient Magic is an excellent volume for a detailed overview of studies of magic in the ancient world. Therefore, I will focus my criticisms on points of possible improvement evident throughout the entire volume. Additionally, below the body of this review is a summary of each chapter and occasional comment about contributions.

First, Guide to the Study of Ancient Magic does not effectively deal with places of historical and ritual overlap. This is especially evident in various author’s discussions of early Christianity, Rome, and Roman/Byzantine Egypt. Many of these materials and cultural traditions developed within the same cultural milieu. As such, it would possibly be more helpful to discuss each in conjunction with one another.

In a similar vein, cultural overlaps are indicative of a degree of intercultural contact and sharing of knowledge. No contributions attempt to track or identify paths wherein knowledge was exchanged or could be exchanged. By doing so, we could have a better sense of how the places wherein magical traditions overlap attained new representability after shifting from one historical context to another via a medium. This issue may be dealt with by more critically considering the notion of the “Mediterranean world.” Helpful discussion of the Mediterranean in terms of intercultural contact is present in The Early Mediterranean World, 1200 – 600 BC.

Second, various contributors should consider incorporating more literary and critical theory into their work. Literary and critical theory would provide helpful frameworks and explanations for claims. For example, David Frankfurter comments about Egypt and hieroglyphs: “vocalization of words was symbolically fixed to their written expression (and vice versa), so writing could substitute for vocal utterance” (630). The notion that writing is a sort of substitute for speech is evident is many literary theorists, most notably Barbara Smith. By further exploring how literary theorists and cognitive linguists think about the relationship between speech and text, Frankfurter and others may be able to develop more systematic, critical, and informed models on how magic functions.

Third, though the editor notes this problem, it is worth highlighting in the review: many traditions are excluded. These include, though are not limited to, Islam and other marginal traditions throughout the ancient Mediterranean. Criticism of the absence of certain traditions is related to my previous points. Intercultural contacts and exchange were common throughout the Mediterranean. As such, the boundaries between traditions, namely the chapter divisions in this volume, are perhaps more porous and permeable in history than the volume indicates. The editor should consider how to develop an approach to magic which is both historically contextualized and flexible enough to account for the permeable and porous boundaries between cultural groups and societies throughout history.

Even with these three criticisms, Guide to the Study of Ancient Magic is a thorough and thoughtful volume on the current state of magic studies in antiquity. Many chapters may be useful as introductory reading for undergraduate and graduate students (Part 2). Moreover, other scholars would do well to familiarize themselves with the methodological discussions Part 4 in order to develop them for their own purposes. In short, I highly recommend Guide to the Study of Ancient Magic to libraries, as it is a particularly helpful reference book for issues of ancient magic.

Chapter Summaries

In chapter 1, David Frankfurter explores how scholars have discussed “magic” from three perspectives, commenting on the implications for each one. First, he argues for a distinction between how texts represent or create caricatures of ‘magic’ practitioners and “how historical ritual specialists in certain times and places might actually have invoked demonic forces in certain rituals” (7). Second, he highlights how modern compilations of ancient documents as ‘magic’ are primarily “documents of specific historical subcultures” (9), like Egyptian priests in the 6th century or Jewish Rabbis in Babylonia. They are not documenting mageia. With this, he provides for guiding points for studying magic: (a) as much as possible, use indigenous vocabulary; (b) consider how texts epitomize illegitimate ritual; (c) when using terms like witch or wizard, be clear when it is used to describe a literary figure as opposed to a real, social figure; and (d) textual evidence is not magic but types of rituals. Third, magic should not be understood as a second order-classification but as a heuristic tool,  which signifies “a shift in political and spatial dimension of materials, formulas and ceremonial elements and the particular charisma borne in the local domain by the symbols of broad religious institutions” (14).

In chapter 2, David Frankfurter outlines the goal and organization of the volume, directing focus on “the problems and interests in ancient materials and the theoretical challenges that they occasion” (22). Within this broad frame, the volume is divided into 3 subsequent sections. Part 2 considers cultural constructions of illegitimate, unsanctioned ritual, aiming for emic and idiosyncratic descriptions of such rituals. Part 3 explores texts and materials which have been called magical and aims to describe how such materials may be used by scholars and what the materials were. Part 4 uses magic as a heuristic term, an etic term, using “magic as a quality or dynamic of words, texts, artifacts, persons, ritual procedures, or social situations” (25).

Chapter 3 briefly introduces Part 2.

In Chapter 4, Daniel Schwemer initially provides a broad overview of ritual lore, focused on the ashipu profession. From texts related to this, namely ritual texts against kishpu, he describes how rituals within ashiputu corpora characterize kishpu and its cause. From this emerges the characterization of an image which was dealt with via ritual actions. Of course, worked into all this is an overview of diagnostic texts. He complicates the presentation by noting the presence of rituals from the Neo-Assyrian and Achaemenid periods which were viewed as kishpu in some texts. In general, Schwemer’s description is an excellent emic description of Mesopotamian magic. Two additions would improve the entry though. First, attention to the socio-economic aspects of magic would be helpful. Second, it would be helpful to distinguish more clearly between text and reality, bridging the divide between the two via analysis.

In chapter 5, Albert de Jong describes the constructions of, and problems with, magic in ancient Iran regarding Zoroastrianism. Particularly problematic with Zoroastrianism is that evidence for constructions of ‘magic’ is found primarily within two textual corpora: Avestan texts and the middle Persian texts known in Pahlavi. Avestan texts include three categories of evil beings: yatus, pairikas, and daevayasnas. The daevayasnas are portrayed as those who invite daevas, usually translated ‘demon’, to sacrifices, thereby strengthening evil. At base, though, daevayasnas are portrayed through the ritual lens of the Avestan texts as those who perform rituals incorrectly, the texts only sometimes describing daeva-worship practice. So, “these texts do not interpret the daevayasnas as such, but interpret other sources of evil and locate the daevayasnas among them” (72).

As for the yatu and pairika, usually translated as sorcerer and witch, Avestan texts characterize these figures as female with malicious and pernicious influence. Pahlavi texts yield similar conclusions concerning the dewesn (devil worshippers) and jadugs (sorcerers). The former is characterized primarily as performing ritual improperly. The latter is characterized whoring, being disobedient, or committing ritual transgression. Sassanian texts also suggest women could be accused for acting as a jadug.

So, at base, de Jong portrays Zoroastrianism as a system wherein the texts are less interested in ‘wrong ritual’ but more interested in precision of correct ritual. As such, proper rituals and prayers are said to be mighty weapons against daevayasnassorcerers, and witches. Unfortunately, material culture complicates the picture because the most helpful things are Sassanian amulet seals which are not present in Zoroastrian texts. Equally problematic is the relationship between incantation bowls, replete with Iranian personal names, divine names, and geographic names, and Zoroastrianism. Overall, it is difficult to comment on religion and magic in Zoroastrianism due to the lack of evidence. Though the contribution is thorough and enlightening, I am left wondering about the reason for ritual ambiguity: is it possible that the ambiguity of ritual transgressions is an intentional thing? Is part of the literary construction of evil figures meant to be ambiguous? If so, how does this impact how we understand other groups in Avestan and Pahlavi texts?

In chapter 6, Jacco Dieleman describes “the nature, functions, and perceptions of ritual and ritualists in pharaonic Egypt” via heka, activities “always framed as assisting in the preservation of the ordered world” (87). Within Egypt, Dieleman constructs a picture of Egypt wherein heka and religion cannot be distinguished. He first describes the nature of heka and how it is harnessed in ritual for ordering the world. Rituals harnessing heka and collections of Egyptian ritual texts demonstrably do not permit a sharp distinction between state ritual and private ritual. Now, because heka is ambiguous, he examines how heka can be a hostile force and how there existed a fear, albeit not a reality, of foreign heka workers who performed rituals with malicious aims, a stereotype present in narrative texts. Finally, he deals with curse rituals, regularly practiced in Egypt for general defense by the state and private individuals. So, “there was no concept of ‘black magic’ or deviant, illegitimate ritual in ancient Egypt” (113). This chapter is notable for its exceedingly clear layout, helpful and insightful discussion of the relationship between religion and magic, and consistent use of primary source material instead of assertions about Egyptian ‘magic.’

In chapter 7, Fritz Graf offers an overview of magic in Greece. Stemming from the goal of defining magos and its cognates, he also (a) examines terminology rivaling or supplementing magos and (b) examines whether magos has anything to do with sanctioned or unsanctioned activities. Texts from the 6th and 5th centuries BCE represent magos as an “itinerant religious entrepreneur” (121). During this period, magos was embedded within a network of ritual specialists: mantisaugrtes, and goes. During the 4th century, magos also became negatively associated with thusiaiepoide, and pharmaka. He ends by describing how the Homeric thelxis, a charm, eventually came to be criminalized by Theodosius and Justinian. Although Graf effectively illustrates how magos developed chronologically in relation to the culture and generally provides and helpful overview, the piece is poorly organized. As such, it is difficult to follow the various developments of magos within the Greek tradition.

In chapter 8, Yuval Harari describes the terminological development of “various aspects of paranormal power and knowledge: from Jewish sources in the Hebrew Bible, the Second Temple period, and Rabbinic literature. First, concerning biblical literature, Harari begins by describing prohibitions against various unsanctioned ritual specialists in Deut 18:9-15. In doing so, Harari frames the discussion in terms of us and others, Us being “the biblically sanctioned agent of knowledge and “truth”” (141-142), the aim being an emic description which is methodologically challenging. From here, he describes multiple aspects of how the Hebrew Bible constructs sanctioned sources and unsanctioned sources of knowledge and paranormal power: signs (אות) and prophetic deeds, priestly practices, means of delegitimizing the “Other”, and performative speech as regards cursing and Yahweh’s name. Through this, he shows how the bible “recognizes the effectiveness of foreign agents of supernatural power and knowledge operating in the world, but consistently reiterates their inferiority vis-a-vis those who act on God’s behalf and under his auspices” (150).

Second, examining Second Temple period writings, Harari highlights multiple key developments: demonology, exorcism via heavenly knowledge from God, demons who teach women unsanctioned knowledge, and ritual performances with sanctioned efficacy being framed as speech from a biblical hero. Third, considering how these ideas grew into Rabbinic Judaism, he describes Rabbinic literature from three perspectives: various laws on keshafim, the power of words, and how Rabbinic literature constructs alien practices and other agents of paranormal events or activities. So, he proposes three basic ideas for exercising power in Rabbinic literature: “(1) a basic belief in the performative potential of the human “deed” (ma’aseh), which effects transformational change in the world and is kishuf, (2) a prohibition against its performance because it is idolatry or defiance of heaven, and (3) stories about the rabbis’ power to operate precisely in this way, that is, to perform a ma’aseh” (173). Overall, Harari’s contribution is one of the best; however, that is likely because much of his discussion is drawn from his previous book on the subject. Even so, his analysis is notable because it (a) focuses on the literary construction of ‘magic’ and (b) emphasizes the issue of knowledge, an emphasis which would be helpful for every contribution. Excluded from his discussion, though, is how certain biblical figures who attain knowledge in unsanctioned rituals are related to the broader Near Eastern culture. For example, how to the kesheph and hartumim relates to Mesopotamian and Egyptian rituals?

In chapter 9, Magali Bailliot traces the evolution of ambiguous ritual practices through the lens of juridical texts. First, by tracing relevant terminology in the Twelve Tables, counter-spells and disenchantments in Pliny, Plutarch, Augustine, and iconography, relevant terminology in Lex Cornelia de sicariis et veneficis, and various later texts, Bailliot highlights how rituals involving things like sorcery, haruspicy, and divination were socially ambiguous. They were perceived as such even more so when such rituals had the potential to disrupt social and political stability. Second, Bailliot describes how defixiones functioned as historically ambiguous rituals, using defixiones “as testimonies to ancient mentalities” (194). To do so, Bailliot shows how gesture, symbol, and word are all linked together within defixiones, though she doesn’t deal with images. With this, Bailliot concludes by suggesting that the itinerant specialists (magicus, necromancer, veneficus, etc.), namely the Others, “did not challenge social rules so much as lend themselves to a play of ambiguities” (197). Though this contribution is solid, for those unfamiliar with Latin, Greek, and Roman studies, the heavy use of emic terminology may confound readers. This raises an important issue in studying any magic: how does one use emic terms in a way that does not make the material unapproachable by non-specialists?

In chapter 10, Joseph E. Sanzo describes the wide range of opinions concerning illicit ritual, ‘magic,’ in early Christian literati. He first addresses how illegitimate and ambiguous ritual characterizations developed in the literary tradition, dividing texts as either narratives or lists. Early narratives do not front illicit practices like mageia, only using such terms for distinguishing insiders from outsiders. Later narratives further developed the contrast between legitimate and illegitimate actors. Lists with illicit rituals, he argues, are similar: earlier texts use general terms for illicit behavior; however, over time, illegitimate ritual experts are more precisely placed within their own taxonomy. Second, he examines the discursive contexts of illegitimate and illicit rituals. To no surprise, discursive contexts typically functioned by establishing religious boundaries. Sanzo also illuminates the diversity of opinions among ecclesiastical leaders.

In chapter 11, Jacques van der Vliet describes construction of illegitimate ritual practices from textual sources in Roman and Byzantine Egypt. First, he outlines the history of the region, the types of source material, and relevant terminology. Second, he describes illegitimate ritual from five perspectives: (a) deviant ritual practices are used to draws boundaries in terms of religious and intellectual differences; (b) terms like mageia that are used to other individuals and sub-groups within the broader category of “Christian,” a sort of insider conflict; (c) sources which offer credible scenarios about how illegitimate ritual functioned in society, though this section is poorly presented because van der Vliet does not explain why he determines texts to be credible; (d) various texts, especially gnostic, that represent the efficacy of illegitimate rituals; and (e) how magos entered Christian imagination as a ‘bad guy’ for saints. Common in each grouping is that the deviant ritual is constructed as having efficacy on account of unsanctioned, illegitimate entities (demon, devil, archons, etc.).

In chapter 12, David Frankfurter introduces Part Three, which focuses on “textual and archaeological materials that have been labelled magic according to long scholarly tradition” (279). He frames Part Three as a section attempting to analyze the literary materials not as magic documents but in terms of how they reflect historical social situations.

In chapter 13, Jacco Dieleman, author of Priests, Tongues, and Rites (Leiden: Brill, 2005), describes the range of Greco-Egyptian magical papyri. He frames magic in this context as “a generic term for a set of ritual practices from late Ptolemaic and Roman Egypt that aimed at acquiring assistance from deities, demons, and the dead for overcoming uncertainty, misfortune illness and conflict in everyday life” (284), a product of the scribal class. Next, he describes the history, origins, and pitfalls of the most accessible text corpora: the Papyri Graecae Magicae (PGM), the Greek Magical Papyri in Translation (GMPT), and the Supplementum Magicum (Suppl. Mag.). Of these manuscripts, Dieleman distinguishes between two types: formularies and activated materials. This allows him to prevent etic categorization of texts, such as language divisions. He also identifies five ancient archives. Shifting to textual content, Dieleman divides the corpora into categories, each with its own subcategories: knowledge, control, protection, healing, and miscellaneous. Then, he draws attention to how the scribal features point to a scribal class conversant with Egyptian, Greek, and Demotic traditions, showing a high degree of technical language and fluid boundaries between Greek and Egyptian scribal cultures.

Moreover, focusing on the apparent bilingualism, he suggests that the bilingual nature of the corpora is grounded in the belief that the supreme deity is beyond and above ethnic and linguistic divisions and answers to different names in different speech communities” (311). Likewise, a reason for bilingual scribal cultural tendencies is “the idea that certain languages, due to their antiquity, are better suited than others to address the divine” (312). Additionally, though Greco-Egyptian formularies often introduce novel ideas, texts tend to be framed “in claiming ancient pedigrees that are without basis in historical reality” (312), thereby giving “clues as to the social and cultural framework in which the practitioners aspired to be working” (312-313). Finally, by noting significant shifts in the corpora, he describes how amalgamation and adaptation appears in Egypt regarding other cultural imports, thereby enabling ritual specialists with “new means to capture and mobilize ritual power in writing” (319). Overall, Dieleman’s contribution is incredibly clear, concise, and well presented. The only problem, though extremely minor, is his use of the term “intertextual,” which appears to be used in an uncritical fashion (300).

In chapter 14, Jacques van der Vliet describes Christian spells and manuals from Egypt, a contribution which is a revision of Marvin Meyer’s (1948-2012) original submission. These texts, typically in Coptic, were produced between 300 and 1200 CE. First, he provides a broad overview of scholarly history, ranging from one of the earliest publications on Coptic magic (1894) to major conferences, articles, and books as late as 2016. Second, he addresses the nature of the Coptic magic corpus, deeming linguistic dichotomy between Greek and Coptic an “antiquated academic habit”, highlighting the corpus as Christian in spirit and background, noting the diversity in text materials, and focusing on Coptic “magic” as a textual practice distinguished from literary and documentary texts. Subsequently, van der Vliet provides an overview of a wide variety of Coptic magic genres and textual strategies. Finally, he describes how future scholarship on Coptic magic must more systematically map out textual sources, more thoroughly consider the social contexts of Coptic spells as ritual artifacts, and consider the authority of Coptic ritual texts. Like other contributions, van der Vliet provides a helpful overview. The sections on genre and textual strategies, though, is difficult to follow. Additionally, it is worth noting the various blog posts from a recent conference on Coptic magic at Universität Würzburg (link).

In chapter 15, Esther Eidinow explores the subject of binding spells (defixiones) on lead and papyri from the 6th century BCE to the 8th century CE, touching on prayers for justice and border-area curses when necessary. She initially provides an overview of the corpora and collection, including forthcoming collections. Next, she outlines a range of texts, diverse in chronology and geographic region. The transmission of defixiones radiates outward form Sicily (6th century BCE), eventually making its way into Roman-Britain. The movement resulted in variations, “shaped by the needs of local contexts, cultures, communities, or even individuals” (364). She then describes how lead binding spells were buried possibly because they were associated with the underworld. Shifting to text and word, Eidinow describes the various types of language (words) and images on defixiones. Finally, based on what is in binding spells, she considers the possible social contexts of them. Even so, she notes that much work remains to be done in mapping the distribution of defixiones in the Mediterranean world and the social dynamics of the objects. Most notable in Eidinow’s contribution is how the uses conceptual blending in order to explain binding spells. The only criticism of her contribution is that rather than asking how the text constructs or imagines a writer of defixiones, she focuses on the writers of defixiones. In reality, we can never know who the writers were or what they were thinking; however, we can know how the text represents the writer, regardless of historical reality.

In chapter 16, Gideon Bohak, who wrote Ancient Jewish Magic: A History (2008), focuses on three groups of Aramaic/Hebrew amulets and magical spells: Byzantine-Palestine, Sassanian Babylonia, and manuals and recipes from late Jewish antiquity. After providing an overview of the respective time periods and regions, Bohak makes a few general observations concerning the corpus. First, he highlights how magic in Egypt, Palestine, and Syria, as opposed to Babylonia, was strongly influenced by local culture. Moreover, evidence for such magic in Babylonia rises drastically in the 5th and 6th centuries CE, which he explains as a period of shifting from oral magic to scribal activity. Second, turning to social contexts of magic artifacts, he notes three trends: (a) though viewing a wide range of heavenly powers as theologically valid, the producers were still firmly monotheistic; (b) magicians were likely also scribes, familiar with spells and the Hebrew Bible, possibly even members of the Rabbinic class; and (c) Jewish physicians likely produced amulets. Even so, Bohak highlights that the study of Jewish magic is in its infancy, in the senses of comparing Jewish magic with Greek and Coptic texts, Babylonian vs Palestinian magic, and ancient Jewish vs Christian magic. Though a splendid contribution, I am not convinced by his explanation for the rise of magic artifacts in the 5th and 6th centuries CE, namely that there was a shift from oral magic to scribal activity. Instead, he should consider how social and economic shifts may have contributed to the influx of magical artifacts.

In chapter 17, Veronique Dasen and Arpad M. Nagy describe magical gems from antiquity, which belong to the broader class of amulets and are a modern etic category. Such amulets reflect “the transculturality of magical knowledge in the Roman imperial period” (416), reflecting old traditions and new developments. First, Dasen and Nagy outline three formal characteristics and three structural elements: gems typically have texts, images, and magical signs; structural elements include engravings, material, and shape. Based on these factors, they may be categorized. Second, they briefly lay out the various functions of gems as amulets (material for which efficacy is not apparent to the non-initiated), gems (with a performative social value and protective function), jewels (primarily a sign of wealth), and seals. The significance and meaning of these categories are unclear, though. Third, they consider how amulets draw from tradition and represent cutting edge, personalized technology, especially in terms of iconography. Though I agree with Dasen and Nagy that both tradition and innovation are present, I disagree with their claim that there is a contradiction between the two. Fourth, shifting to social function, they describe the types of individuals who made amulets (ritual experts), production centers (widespread; no single production center), and chronology (viewing use of magical gems as part of a broader shift from ritual via orality to ritual via writing). They note, though, that identifying who used amulets is either overly specific or too generalized. Various Greco-Egyptian papyri at least show a connection between papyri and gems regarding rituals as two dialects of magic, a concept they should have further detailed. Finally, they provide an overview of why amulets were used, namely for love and illness. In section, they offer an overview of the history of scholarship.

In chapter 18, Andrew Wilburn engages “with the concept of representation in ritual practices and the relationship between an image or simulacrum of a person or thing and the person or thing that it purports to represent” (458). Dividing the analysis into three categories (Egypt and ancient Near East; Greek and Hellenistic world; and Roman), he describes four common ritual. Beginning his discussion, Wilburn first highlights how realism “may not map onto the ancient mind” (461); instead, “the importance of the [image often lies not in its appearance but rather its efficacy to the goals of practitioner or ritual celebrant” (462). For this conclusion, he draws from a mixture of previous studies on regions and critical theory. Second, he offers a broad overview of images in Egypt, the ancient Near East, the Hellenistic world, and the Roman period. He concludes that images were polyvalent in terms of their relation to their antecedent. Even so, the image was simply a representation of the antecedent. I am only left wondering about texts; if a text is viewed as an image, or perhaps language describes a ritual representation, how does that change our understanding?

In chapter 19, Roy D. Kotansky broadly analyzes amulets from the perspective of textuality and writing traditions in the ancient world. He classifies amulets into three categories: unlettered, semi-lettered, and lettered. Konansky’s categories are based on the notion of an amulet progressing from spoken incantation to written text. Next, he considers a wide range of amulet traditions: Mesopotamian, Egyptian, Punic-Phoenician, early Hebrew and Jew, early Greek, and Roman. For each tradition, he attempts to describe its development in terms of textuality, especially regarding how the amulets relate to each other cross-culturally. This contribution is problematic on two accounts. First, he uncritically applies the Great Divide between text and orality, a problem pervasive throughout this volume. Second, he fails to justify his division of amulets by region and does not address issues wherein the categories overlap. Moreover, he extensively uses imprecise and generic rhetoric in order to make claims about textual traditions, such as words like “anticipates” without any substantiation as to why the textual tradition is related.

In chapter 20, Andrew Wilburn examines how various building components across the ancient Mediterranean indicate ritual processes via material evidence (archaeological) and literary sources. For each building component, Wilburn concisely and clearly describes the evidence for cultures chronologically. Initially, though, Wilburn provides a basic theoretical framework for social space. Then he discusses the building components: site preparation, foundation, enclosure, floor, roof, and aggressive ritual activity regarding architecture. In doing so, he illuminates the “fluid relationship between ritual and architecture” (600). Though a marvelous contribution, I am left wondering how his theory of social space incorporates notions of “ancient Mediterranean.”

Part 4 considers ways in which magic might serve to describe “a quality of social or material dynamics or of communication itself” (606). Discussion in Part 4 is intended to be tentative and provocative, not exhaustive.

In chapter 22, David Frankfurter considers how speech may be considered ‘magic’ by describing it in terms of a speech act. First, he describes what constitutes a speech act, highlighting important terms like illocutionary, perlocutionary, and functionality. Though speech acts do not necessarily carry magical force, “there exist certain types of speech that function in their very utterance to change things in the world, or to create a situation that invites change” (613). Second, he applies this model to epoide and charm, sacred and liturgical speech, and other worldly speech. For each, the magical aspect is the shift to divine sources of language or the “phonetic zone of the gods” (624).

In chapter 23, David Frankfurter considers how writing functions as magic “long after the moment of vocalization” (627) and how the written word in antiquity can be “a magic that revolved around the ideas of graphically representing speech” (629). He subsequently examines multiple traditions and links them together. First, he observes how hieroglyphs, as substitutes for vocal utterance could be washed off and transferred as “a concrete medium for the “power” of the word, name, god, or myth that is signified” (635). Second, drawing attention to Greek writing, ritual orality, and voces magicae, Frankfurter describes how voces magicae served to imitate the speech of gods based on the Greek philosophical notion of stoicheia. Third, he identified five ways in which Greek letters functioned as iconic media in a way akin to Egyptian hieroglyphs (“Ephesian letters”; nomina sacra; Greek alphabet as secretly pictographic; isopsephy/gematria; and cryptography). Finally, Frankfurter describes how characteres are linked to Egyptian hieroglyphs in image, literature, and amulets through merging Greek magic “with the concrete efficacy of the visual signifier in Egyptian magic” (656). With approach to magic, it “offers a qualitative evaluation of the significance and function of writing, or a form of writing” (657).

In chapter 24, Frankfurter considers the materiality of magic, focusing on “material media as (a) primary contexts for… religious and ritual experience and (b) as possessing and directing agency in the world” (660-661). Fundamental for him is identifying how agent authors perceived materials as acting, fixed sympathetic forces or agents. Combined as an assemblage, such sympathetic forces are powerful active groups of agents. In some cases, such as figurines, materials as agents demand responses within ceremonies and ritual. Additionally, through social context and recognizability, a sort of agency may be created in an object, such as a ritual object or assemblage linked to myth and immediate ritual efficacy as a mediating object. So, at base, Frankfurter pushes for a model of magic and materiality wherein “Even if its agency derives ultimately from a god, hero, ancestor, or ritual expert, the amulet, blessing, or assemblage bears that agency in its material form” (676). This approach seems particularly promising beyond the realm of magic, especially when considering how idols functioned in the ancient Near East.

In chapter 25, Naomi Janowitz examines how “magic” can explain certain aspects of mysticism through a notion of magical language. She looks at ancient linguistic ideologies and analyzes them: words as representations of divinity via the Derveni Papyrus and Socrates, words as divine speech via the Hekhalot hymns, transformation by divine names via Hekhalot Rabbati and Gospel of the Egyptians, and words, sounds, and breath via Mithras liturgy.

In chapter 26, Sarah Iles Johnston examines the connection between theurgy and magic. First, she offers a concise history of theurgy, especially highlighting its relation to magic and Jewish traditions. Theurgy originates out of Middle Platonic philosophy. Through this Platonist metaphysical framework, Johnston describes various ritual processes for ascension. Though scholars often approach theurgy as magic, Johnston presents theurgy as something distinct form magic based on extant theurgical texts. This contribution is an excellent overview of how theurgy has been used through history.

In chapter 27, David Frankfurter examine sway in which magic can be used when linked to the concept of religion, not being crude or derogatory. This is necessary because, evening setting aside problematic conceptions of religion versus magic, “we must reckon with some kind of cultural relationship between – in gross terms – official forms of religion and the forms represented in the magical texts and ritual materials” (721). So, Frankfurter frames magic as drawing from “authoritative tradition,” namely an appeal to religious authority whether or not it is based in historical reality, As such, he defines magic as “the invocation and deployment of an authoritative tradition in a local performative context through the creative agency of a ritual expert and involving various ritual media” (722). By incorporating Robert Redfield’s Great Tradition and Little Tradition, he further specifies magic as “the ritual or material context in which a Great Tradition (that may or may not be associated with living cults or temples) is interpreted by a ritual expert, located in time and space, and linked with particular social circumstances” (725). Great Tradition is identifiable via iconography, written vs. oral, and local social agency as mediated by Great Tradition. He offers three gradations of such mediation through which magic attains efficacy: direct mediation of an active religious institution, ritual experts improvising elements of a living or moribund institution, and mediation of an invented Great Tradition. At base, though an imperfect model, magic ritual is a more localized form of religious religion. Though a potentially promising approach, I wonder how it may be adjusted for particular historical contexts and how we may more precisely describe the Greater Tradition. For example, Frankfurter claims that Jewish ritual experts practically invented the tradition of Solomon as an exorcist. As a Great Tradition, what is the relationship between Solomon as an exorcist and the Hebrew Bible? In other words, a method should be developed in order to specify the ritual specialist’s perception of the Great Tradition.

In chapter 28, Esther Eidinow considers “magic” a heuristic means for understanding social tension by analyzing aggressive magical practices. Through social conflict discourses within texts, Eidenow identifies social dynamics, including various contexts, motivations, and assumptions regarding social tension, questioning why certain social tensions arise in communities from the perspective of magic. Such an approach Eidinow suggests, is indicative of emotion, thereby enabling a better understanding of social dynamics and tensions. Second, she suggests magic points towards social tensions inasmuch as magical accusations can function as a form of gossip. Thus, she argues that magic from her perspective may only be understood in context of the society and culture. Finally, she offers thoughts about how subsequent scholarship should integrate magical studies.

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Review: “An Obituary for “Wisdom Literature”: The Birth, Death, and Intertextual Reintegration of a Biblical Corpus” by Will Kynes

Will Kynes. An Obituary for “Wisdom Literature”: The Birth, Death, and Intertextual Reintegration of a Biblical Corpus. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2019. XVIII + 324.

“Wisdom Literature” as a generic category has been used for centuries. Will Kynes’ central aim in An Obituary for “Wisdom Literature” is to critically analyze the category of “Wisdom Literature” and provide an alternative approach to the corpus via intertextual reintegration. In what follows, I will summarize the volume and provide subsequent critical reflection.

In Chapter One, Will Kynes describes how modern scholarship’s use of the category “Wisdom Literature” is fundamentally flawed. Often times, “Wisdom” becomes a generic or thematic category which obscures biblical texts. As such, up till now, only two options have been available: amputate the category all-together or allow pan-sapientalism to contaminate all biblical texts. He substantiates his argument by identifying unintended consequences of the category (adaption of “Wisdom Literature” into Assyriology and Egyptology; presupposition of modern categories within texts; connection of “Wisdom Literature” to an administrative scribal class; the near universal application of “Wisdom Literature” to the biblical corpus), briefly reviewing 20th and 21st century scholarship about “Wisdom Literature” (illuminating how the criteria for “Wisdom Literature” remains inconclusive, hazy, and subjective), diagnosing particular issues of “Wisdom Literature” (pan-sapientalism with in the wisdom category; failed attempts to treat the issue via genre and scribal setting; and potential future problems in associating the entire Hebrew Bible with wisdom literature), and identifying similar issues in biblical studies (Psalter, Qumran, ancient Near East, and Pan-Deuteronomism). Hinting towards subsequent chapters, he proposes an approach via intertextual connections in order to deal with what has traditionally been considered “Wisdom Literature.”

In Chapter Two, Kynes examines how ancient textual traditions engage with what are typically considered Wisdom literature. He does this in order to determine if the “wisdom category has an ancient pedigree” (60). First, drawing from groupings of texts in early Christian literature, he highlights how these groupings, though akin to “wisdom” groupings, include no explanation or category as to why they are grouped together. Within the Writings, what Kynes calls the Hebrew order, the wisdom texts appear not to be correlated with wisdom as a genre proper. Likewise, although texts typically grouped as wisdom literature appear in Greek texts, the classification is not equivalent to wisdom, being more united through the notion of didactiscism. Second concerning association between Solomon and texts, the association is not reflective of genre. Even within these associations, Jewish and Christian traditions recognize the diversity of ‘Solomonic’ texts and exclude Job. Third, he notes that while features are common to traditional “wisdom” texts, shared characteristics are not strong enough “that they could be considered a distinctive category” (75). Fourth, he shows how the Hebrew Bible shows no evidence for wisdom (חכמה) as an emic genre category. Fifth, he shows how medieval interpreters had no wisdom category, though this section employs far less textual support and could be significantly improved. Having outlined the flimsy foundations off wisdom’s ancient pedigree, he effectively illustrates that the origins of “Wisdom” must be sought in the modern period.

In Chapter Three, Kynes continues describes the origins of wisdom of a literary, generic category. Tracking the origins of ‘wisdom’ through footnotes and references, he suggests that Johann Bruch’s Weisheits-Lehre der Hebraer (1851) is the first place wherein the notion of ‘wisdom’ as a generic category appears. While various figures like Hegel, Vatke, Herder, Schleiermacher, and others influenced Bruch’s work, Bruch’s investigation of Hebrew “philosophy”, or as he calls it “wisdom teaching,” is the first synthesis of trends in biblical scholarship and philosophy, resulting in a category “Wisdom Literature.” Though subsequent scholars pushed against Bruch, they, nonetheless, framed “their interpretation of these texts… by Bruch’s association of these texts with philosophy and against theocracy” (100). As such, the origins of ‘wisdom’ as a generic category are fundamentally flawed, being primarily the result of 19th century philosophical discourse and theological concern. Moreover, “the definition of Wisdom Literature is so vague that it invites interpreters to import their own modern presuppositions into the texts to fill it out” (103).

In Chapter Four, Kynes lays out a new way to think about and to approach the problem of genre. He frames his approach as a movement away from traditional taxonomic and rigid approaches. First, he describes genre as “nothing more than a formalized version of intertextuality” (110), drawing attention to how generic classification varies based on the horizon of expectations. As such, he suggests that “any genre-driven interpretation… constantly runs the risk of deforming a text’s interpretation by illegitimately restricting its manifold significant intertextual connections” (112). To explain how genres emerge, then, he suggests that they emerge as “”symbols of relationship”… through readers’ perceptions of the patterns of affiliations between texts” (114). As such, genre is only valid relative to a reader’s position socially and culturally. To elucidate how a reader stands in relation to a text as it concerns genre, Kynes draws from conceptual blending theory, a two stage process of identifying internal relations between texts and the giving shape to the relations, resulting in genre.

A significant factor in conceptual blending is accounting for cultural influences, namely “how the genres that readers apply to the text are themselves shaped by historical and ideological forces” (122). He suggests that network theory serves to offer “a helpful means of understanding the culturally influenced nature of this emergence of genres” (123). The aforementioned discussion contributes to what he calls a multidimensional approach to genre, where genre is relative to one’s location, just as the Orion constellation is different based on an individuals location in the solar system. In doing so, he highlights “the plurality of texts, genres, and subject positions” (126).

As a consequence, genre, he suggests, is helpful inasmuch as it encourages comparison of textual groupings relative to texts’ history of interpretation and reception. Wisdom, then, may be understood as a relative and partial generic classification. Moreover, his approach to genre deals with issues of particularity/generality and subjectivity/objectivity by enabling interpreters to triangulate meaning, thereby resulting in “more objective interpretation” (140). Likewise it accounts for stability and change in generic classifications. This discussion, Kynes notes, is equally important for other biblical categories.

In Chapter Five, Kynes considers various genre networks of Job. First, he highlights three problems with reading Job as wisdom literature: (1) canonical division, preventing scholars from associating Job with non-wisdom texts, especially with regard to literary re-use; (2) theological abstraction with a perception of job as a didactic, philosophical text; (3) and hermeneutical limitations, though it is unclear what he means. Second, Kynes describes a wide variety of ways that scholars have described the genre of Job, including pre-19th century, ancient Near East, adapted, and meta generic distinctions. Taking these various perspectives into consideration, he suggests that the network approach may offer a more “comprehensive understanding of its meaning”; however, he doesn’t show how the network approach yields new analysis or results about Job.

In Chapter Six, Kynes considers Ecclesiastes in light of his methodology. First, he provides an overview of the pervasive confusion surrounding the nature of Ecclesiastes. Through such confusion, though, the assumption that Ecclesiastics contributes to wisdom literature remained consistent and unexamined. As a result, Ecclesiastes runs into the same issues as Job: canonical separation, theological abstraction, and hermeneutical limitation. Next, he describes the intertextual network of Ecclesiastes from three perspectives: genres before “Wisdom Literature” (Megilloth, poetry, solomonic collection), other genre groupings (Torah, history, prophecy, and apocalyptic), and genres from the ancient world, which Kynes claims often limit interpretation. Like the chapter on Job, he suggests that the multiperspectival network approach “will enable readers to see these diverse features more clearly” (217).

In Chapter Seven, Kynes considers Proverbs with regard to his new model. As with previous chapters, he initially illustrates how Proverb’s modern categorization as Wisdom Literature problematically results in canonical separation, theological abstraction, and hermeneutical limitation. Next, he outlines pre-Wisdom Literature generic groupings.: Sefrei Emet, poetry, and Solomonic collection. In terms of Solomon’s wisdom, he identifies four sub-genres: political education, ethical paraenessis, cultic guidance, and inspired instruction. Third, he describes Proverbs as part of ancient Near East groupings. Finally, he synthesizes these genres as part of his network approach, highlighting that boundaries and borderlines between such genres should be temporary and permeable (242).

Offering closing notes, Kynes summarizes his chapters and describes wisdom as a genre category to be dead. Instead, he proposes moving forward in a way that only uses wisdom as a concept and not as a genre.

Part One (Historical Metacriticism; Chapters 1-3) is by far the most outstanding portion of the volume. He provides sharp, well-thought out criticism of recent scholarship about Wisdom Literature. His work in Part One is akin to Talal Asad’s Genealogies of Religion, Jonathan Z. Smith’s “Religion, Religions, Religious”,  or David Lambert’s How Repentance Became Biblical with regard to the penitential lens inasmuch as Kynes clearly and carefully illustrates how the modern origins of the category distort objects under analysis. Undoubtedly, Part One is essential reading for biblical scholars.

Part Two (Chapter 4), wherein Kynes lays out a new model for approaching texts, is less developed. First, although Kynes cites theorists like Bakhtin, Frow, Geertz, Duff, and Bloom as he discusses intertextuality, he does not mention a wide variety of other important critics and interlocutors: Michael Holquist, William Irwin, Jenny Luarent, H.P. Mai, Russel Meek (certain articles), Piotr Michalowski, Geoffrey Miller, H.F. Plett, Christopher Hays, Lyle Eslinger, etc.. He also excludes the most important figure for intertextuality, namely Julia Kristeva, a French literary critic known for her work on intertextuality. To develop an entire method of “intertextuality” without mentioning Kristeva is akin to developing a method for Pentateuchal source criticism without referencing or acknowledging Julius Wellhausen. For example, Kristeva does not support the notion of genre in her writings. For Kristeva, genre carried a negative charge, perceived as (a) carrying a power of precedent based on ‘convention’ and ‘decorum’; and (b) and “as a repressive mechanism by which cultural institutions sought to classify, commodify and control artistic production.” Such criticism of genre is also present in Derrida, Barthes, Maurice Blanchot, and Benedetto Croce, as early as 1900 [1]. As such, Kynes’ uncritical combination of genre and intertextuality needs to be justified through engagement with, not just citation of, literary critics and interlocutors.

Additionally, Kynes’ entire methodology is based on a very particular definition of genre: it is “nothing more than a formalized version of intertextuality” (110). Setting aside the previous criticisms of Kynes’ combination of intertextuality and genre, his restricted definition essentially sidesteps and ignores any definitions of genre which interlocutors from chapters 5, 6, and 7 may have held. As such, any criticisms of their work with regard to genre is questionable because their understandings of genre is subordinated to his understanding of genre.

Concerning the actual methodology, it is unclear how his approach is helpful for biblical scholarship. In Chapter 4, wherein he presents his methodology, he includes multiple graphic illustrations in order to demonstrate how people conceptualize the relationship between texts. Chapters 5, 6, and 7, though, do not use the graphic illustrations which make clear his approach to genre as an intertextual grouping. Moreover, although he describes how scholars identify distinct generic groupings, he never triangulates various generic groupings in order to provide a more objective interpretation (see summary of chapter 4). That is to say, Kynes seems never to demonstrate the network approach as an effective tool and method for analysis of biblical texts.

Finally, though Kynes’ argument for the origins of wisdom literature in the 18th and 19th centuries CE is solid, it is too much to say that “[to] avoid perpetuating the hermeneutical distortions Wisdom has created, the field must recognize that the taxonomic category has been detrimental and is now dead” (245). In the field of religious studies, most scholars recognize “religion” as a modern, second-order category; however, most scholars have not concluded that religion is dead. Rather, religion must be approached in a critical and nuanced manner, the concept or genre explained in relation to the particular historical or literary context. Such an approach to the notion of Wisdom Literature is more reasonable; any commentary on Wisdom Literature must define the particular parameters of the category.

In conclusion, Kynes’ An Obituary for “Wisdom Literature” is invaluable in terms of how it traces the genealogy of wisdom as a generic category; however, the alternative methodology and approach proposed by Kynes needs refining before it can be useful for biblical scholarship.

[1] Duff, David. “Intertextuality versus Genre Theory: Bakhtin, Kristeva and the Question of Genre.” In Paragraph Vol. 25, No. 1 (2002): 54-73.

 

Philosophical Friday: Giovanni Boccaccio and the Obscurity of Poetry

Giovanni Boccaccio (1313-1375) was an Italian scholar, raised in Florence. He wrote a wide variety of works: allegorical poems, prose tales, romances, and more. Among Boccaccio’s most well-known books is Genealogy of the Gentile Gods, “a mythological sourceboook that would introduce readers to the study of the ancient poets” [1]. One goal of Genealogy of the Gentile Gods was to provide an argument in favor of poetry as a means for locating truth, setting himself apart from Plato who saw poetry as opposed to truth. Instead, poetry is understood as being from “the bosom of God.”

I am interested, though, in how Boccaccio deals with the problem of poetic obscurity and how Boccaccio’s perspective builds off of and develops older traditions. Initially, Boccaccio frames his argument in terms of a caviller, a person that raises petty quibbles, who objects “that poetry is often obscure, and that poets are to blame for it, since their end is to make an incomprehensible statement appear to be wrought withe exquisite artistry” [2].

In response, Boccaccio offers a few example of texts and writers who are equally obscure but not criticized. First, he makes reference to the philosophers. He offers a question: “do they”, namely philosophers, “always find their close reasoning as simple and clear as they say an oration should be? If they say yes, they lie; for the works of Plato and Aristotle… abound in difficulties…” [3]. In short, philosophical writings are unclear. Second, Boccaccio notes that even the Holy Writ is obscure sometimes. Therefore, any condemnation of poetry on account of obscurity results in the blaspheming of the Holy Ghost. After all, even Augustine comments that certain passages of Isaiah are unclear to him.

On this basis, Boccaccio argues that “no one can believe that poets invidiously veil the truth with fiction,” but they rather veil truth “to make truths which would otherwise cheapen by exposure the object of strong intellectual effort and various interpretation” [4]. In other words, the Holy Writ and non-Holy Writ texts alike veil truth as a means of preventing it from becoming worthless and too common. Such an explanation is remarkably similar to how Augustine explains the obscurity of the Holy Writ: “It is a wonderful and beneficial thing that the Holy Spirit organized the holy scripture so as to satisfy hunger by means of its plainer passages and remove boredom by means of its obscurer ones” [5]. In other words, the obscurity in the Holy Writ is intentional.

While Boccaccio and Augustine both discuss the problem of obscurity and poetry, the reason and way they employ it is distinct. Augustine refers to the obscurity of scripture and its divine cause in order to provide a theological explanation for misunderstood and obscure biblical texts. In other words, his formulation in On Christian Teaching is intended to deal with a theological problem. Although Boccaccio draws from Augustine, inasmuch as he notes the theological problem of viewing obscure texts like the Holy Writ as being impractical, Boccaccio takes Augustine’s framework and applies it to non-biblical material. So, whereas Augustine primarily considers obscurity as reasonable within the Holy Writ, Boccaccio expands this to include non-Holy Writ.

In doing so, Boccaccio creates a divide between that which is Holy Writ and that which is not Holy Writ. By distinguishing between a special, select group of texts and all others, Boccaccio implies a distinction akin to the distinction between secular and religious. In his situation, the Holy Writ is a religious text, whereas all other texts are secular texts.

Boccaccio’s distinction is worth emphasizing because it illumines how the foundations of poetry as an academic object of study are themselves historically defined and understood as that which is not Holy Writ. Such a genealogy is worth examining further.

[1] The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism, 201.

[2] The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism, 206.

[3] The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism, 206-207.

[4] The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism, 208.

[5] The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism168.

 

 

Philosophical Friday: Dante Alighieri and Thomas Aquinas

Dante Alighieri (1265-1321) is most well-known for his work The Divine Comedy, the first part being more colloquially known as Dante’s Inferno. As a poet living in the 13th and 14th centuries, Dante was concerned with “the problem of how to understand and construe textual meaning” [1]. In many respects, he construed textual meaning is a way similar to Thomas Aquinas.

In Il Convivio, Dante offers commentary on his own poetry in a way that also deals with ethics, metaphysics, philosophy, and politics [2]. Within his commentary, he notes four senses of interpretation: literal, allegorical, moral, and anagogical. Of these senses of interpretation, the literal is the most important because it is only from the literal that the other senses are possible: “since explication is the building up of knowledge, and the explication of the literal sense is the foundation of the others, especially, the allegorical, it is impossible to arrive at the other senses without first arriving at it” [3].

Moreover, Dante interpreting his own poetry, his approach that the “text is polysemous: that is it has many meanings – including the literal – that occur in a single imaginative act” [4]. This is similar to Aquinas, inasmuch as the literal meaning forms the foundation for the allegorical, moral, and anagogical. There is a significant difference, though, between Dante and Aquinas. Aquinas views interpretation as polysemous, albeit rooted in the literal, and justifies his reasoning theologically: “since the author of the Holy Writ is God… it is not unfitting… one word in Holy Writ should have several senses” [4]. Simply put, Aquinas’ perspective is framed by an assumption and perception that his Bible is authored by God. Though similar, Dante differs. Dante is concerned with interpreting literature from his own imagination. So, although Dante and Aquinas employ similar interpretive views, Dante perceives such polysemy as the product of a human mind, whereas Aquinas primarily employs the interpretive framework theologically with relation to God’s intellect.

What, though, is the significance of this difference? While both scholars employ similar interpretive approaches, one uses the theory to explain a theological text (Aquinas), whereas the other uses the theory to explain a human text (Dante). Such a shift in terms of how the theory is utilized signals a shift from a theological model of interpretation to a humanistic model of interpretation, a general feature of the shift into modernity. The previous discussion illuminates how certain fundamental methodologies of Christian theological treatise and perspectives on the Holy Writ were essentially transposed and given a new meaning within authors and thinkers like Dante.

[1] The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism, 195.

[2] “Dante Alighieri,” in Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (2018).

[3] The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism, 197.

[4] The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism, 193.

The Etic, Emic, and Everything In-Between: Some Reflections on Adele Reinhartz’s Response to Daniel Boyarin

Recently, Daniel Boyarin published a book titled Judaism: The Genealogy of a Modern Notion. The goal of the book is to explore the history and usage of the term “Judaism”. Though I have admittedly not read the volume, Adele Reinhartz provides a helpful depiction of the Boyarin’s conclusions: “we “should not ascribe to a culture a category or abstraction for which that culture does not have a term.” To do so is anachronistic and therefore bad methodology. The implications for our scholarly practice is self-evident: we should not use the term Judaism when discussing premodern Jews” (Reinhartz 2019). As she notes later in her article, Boyarin’s conclusion is akin to his and Carlin Barton’s conclusion in Imagine No Religion (Fordham University Press, 2016), wherein Barton and Boyarin attempt to describe religion in antiquity without invoking modern the modern category “religion.”

Speaking of “Judaism” as a generic category, Reinhartz comments: “But does not the use of later generalizing terms give free rein to the dreaded sin of anachronism? Why, yes, of course it does. I would argue, however, that some degree of anachronism is inherent to the study of the past” (Reinhartz 2019). I am inclined to agree with Reinhartz. Various authors express similar sentiments about the category of “magic” in the recent volume titled Guide to the Study of Ancient Magic (Leiden: Brill, 2019). For example, Yuval Harari, known for his work on magic in ancient Israel and early Judaism, suggests “that an absolute split between the emic and the etic is impossible, and all attempts to trace the course of an emic approach are based on some presumption about the domain whose emic features we seek” (Harari 2019, 141).

My point in drawing attention to this is simple: many words in our vocabulary are, to echo J.Z. Smith’s perspective of religion, secondary categories [1]. Such categories don’t have a single definition; rather, they have 50 different definitions. The definitions depend on the particular contexts.

As Reinhartz and various authors in Guide to the Study of Ancient Magic point out, the modern categories which we impose on texts are exactly that. They are modern. As such, it is always a challenge to objectively describe a culture or text purely based on its internal qualities.

That is to say, it is particularly difficult to strongly distinguish between emic and etic descriptions. Difficulties distinguishing between these two anthropological approaches lead me to a comment and question worth exploring. While texts/cultures can be described with etic or emic terms, such descriptions are, in reality, too optimistic and unrealistic, as these categories are not precise. As such, how can scholars more systematically and critically map out the space between etic and emic analysis?

Admittedly, I am not incredibly conversant with anthropology. If such studies are available within anthropology, I would love to read them. On the other hand, if such studies are not available, it may be a route worth exploring. Exploring it will enable scholars to better engage with texts and cultures by more precisely defining where they stand between etic and emic [2].

[1] By contrast, though, David Frankfurter, “Ancient Magic in a New Key,” in Guide to the Study of Ancient Magic, ed. David Frankfurter (Leiden: Brill, 2019), 20, comments on “magic” as a second-order category: “While helpful initially to highlight aspects of phenomena, the term “magic” remains too vague to rely on as a genuine second-order category of description – for magic as described here essentially permeates human language, material lives, and social interactions.” That is to say, based on his definition and approach to “magic,” it is always present in societies through time and space.

[2] Though it not available to me at the moment, The Early Mediterranean World, 1200 – 600 BC (Leiden: Brill, 2018) includes helpful discussions about methodology. There may be some fruitful routes presented within the volume.

Philosophical Friday: Thomas Aquinas and Metaphor

Thomas Aquinas was a philosopher and theologian from a family of Italian nobles. During his life (1225-1274), he wrote more than sixty books. Among his most well-known works is Summa Theologica. Within the book, he deals with issues of biblical interpretation, among other things. In the Ninth and Tenth articles, he deals with two issues important in modern literary discourse: metaphor and whether or not words in the Christian biblical tradition can have several senses.

Concerning the first, he lays a framework for how he understands the relationship between materials and text, a text he perceives as being the Holy Writ. Within this framework, “spiritual truths are fittingly taught under the likeness of material things” [1] in order that all people may grasp and understand the text. As such, poetry (text) and materials are in relation via metaphorical expression. This metaphorical connection between poetry and materials can take two forms: (a) a generic form for men to simply please humans or (b) a sacred form which leverages metaphor for divine truths. Moreover, the metaphorical connection between text and material is sometimes obscure within “Holy Writ” in order to allow people to exercise their minds and prevent the impious from ridiculing the text.

Concerning the Tenth Article, he sees multiple layers of sense: the allegorical (the Hebrew Bible signifying relation to New Testament literature); the moral sense (things done by or signifying Jesus); anagogical sense (related to eternal glory); literal sense (the intention of the author, namely God). Of these, the last sense is central. The literal sense, for Aquinas, contains multiple senses because he perceive God as the author.

From these points, I find a few features notable.

First, Aquinas approaches the text with the assumption that “God” is the quintessential author. God being a transcendent deity who is all-powerful, perception of God as the author influences how Aquinas approaches and defines the types of metaphor. His second understanding of metaphor, sacred metaphor which communicates divine truths, echoes the concerns expressed by authors like Longinus. The notion of “sacred metaphor” is similar, though not equivalent to, the sublime. As a result, within Aquinas’ writing, the Bible receives a special status in comparison with other books, wherein he essentially employs circular reasoning: the Bible is sublime because God wrote it; and God wrote the bible so it is sublime.

Second, Aquinas claims that texts don’t always make sense because God wants to train minds and prevent ridicule. He is much like other writers that I have discussed: this is his way of dealing with texts which are lacking cogency and coherency. Though such things are always lacking to a certain degree, human minds naturally and instinctively attempt to fix the ruptures in the flow of a text.

[1] The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism, 191.

Philosophical Friday: Moses Maimonides and Coherence/Cogency

Moses Maimonides was a Jewish scholar who lived from 1135-1204. During his lifetime, he lived in Spain, Morocco, and Cairo. He was a particularly well known and respected Jewish scholar during his own lifetime. Guide of the Perplexed is among his most well-known works in the 21st century. So, within this blog post, I will briefly summarize his approach to textual interpretation and provide a few reflections on his description of textual interpretation.

First, in Guide of the Perplexed, Maimonides points towards two key reasons in order to explain why people fail to understand the meaning of texts: (a) failure to recognize the polysemy of biblical languages and (b) the use of obscure parables in the Hebrew Bible which are intended to “maintain the secrets of divine knowledge” [1]. With this in mind, he also views the propositions in texts in an interesting light. Rather than arguing that a reader should take into consideration how how text is constructed, tracking every piece in order to identify the primary meaning of a parable, Maimonides suggests that “you should not inquire into all the details occurring in the parable” because it may “lead you into ones of two ways: either into turning aside from the parable’s intended subject, or into assuming an obligation to interpret things not susceptible of interpretation and that have not been inserted with a view to interpretation” [2].

With a basic outline of method presented, I now want to draw attention to a few points which strike me as relevant for the type of analysis I am interested in doing. First, he comments that within some parables the extra words serve “to embellish the parable and to render it more coherent or to conceal further the intended meaning” [3]. This captures how Maimonides is attempting to deal with texts which are not coherent or cogent, a subject which, though I don’t have access to the article at the moment, Marc Brettler has discussed. Likewise, in Pentateuchal studies, the Documentary Hypothesis (broadly construed) is used to explain places which are not cogent or coherent. Put simply, Maimonides develops his method out of recognition that the text is not always clear; however, unlike modern approaches, his approach is more theological in nature, perceiving the biblical text as divine in nature and, as such, attributing lack of coherency and cogency to divine intention.

Second, and riffing on my first point, I am left to wonder about which texts constitute those parables that Maimonides categorizes as (a) parables for which each word has meaning and (b) parables for which the whole text indicates the meaning [4]. The example he provides of the first type of parables is Genesis 28:12-13, itself framed as a dream. The second type of parable is Proverbs 7:6-21, itself framed as a complete narrative about a young lad swayed by a woman on the street [5]. With this in mind, at least from a very brief overview of the texts categorized by Maimonides, it seems that the first type of parable is associated with dreams, which themselves are a means that God communicates specific messages to individuals. That description, therefore, is closer to communication directly from God. By contrast, the second type of parable is framed as more generic knowledge, not directly or indirectly associated with God’s speech or revelation. Therefore, at least from a broad overview, his two categories may be divided according to the following: (a) texts wherein Yahweh communicates a message and (b) texts wherein a speaker or agent other than Yahweh communicates a message. Of course, this idea needs to be further developed and tested.

 

[1] The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism, 179.

[2] The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism, 187-188.

[3] The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism, 186.

[4] The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism, 186.

[5] Although The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism, 187n2, says Maimonides quotes Proverbs 7:6-21, it is actually Proverbs 7:7-21.