When Religion becomes Fandom, or Why the MCU and Its Fans Reminds People of Religion

One approach to comic books currently in vogue is to view comic books, comic book culture, and fandoms through the lens of religion. As Aaron Ricker suggests, though, “By choosing what to study as religion, scholars help define religion, and the ways in which we do this can often look lazy and (confessionally and/or professionally) self serving” [1]. This approach follows Aaron W. Hughes and Russel T. McCutcheon’s recent emphasis that “we may be less interested in studying religion than in shifting the ground and, instead, studying the act of calling something religion,” namely, the discourse around religion [2]. Thus, we must ask not whether the MCU and its fans are sometimes interpreted through a lens of religion but rather why the MCU and its fans are sometimes interpreted through the lens of religion. One answer to this question is by exploring the notion of world-building as it relates to both religion and comic book culture. This world-building, I argue, forms a bridge that results in scholars often viewing comic book culture as a sort of religion.

In what follows, I first identify what constitutes world-building and why it is important. Then, I examine the MCU and religion as separate categories through these lens of world-building. Third, I bring the MCU and religion together through the lens of world-building in order to identify one aspect of why religion scholars sometimes us a religious studies lens to approach the MCU. Finally, I show how the flip side of this observation might give have potential, namely, exploring religion through the lens of world-building and fandoms.

World-Building

World-building is an idea in the field of media studies that Mark J. P. Wolf recently synthesized and developed in Building Imaginary Worlds: The Theory of History and Subcreation [3]. Simply put, world-building is the subcreation of a secondary world, not simply a fictional world but a world in which the represented reality is “different enough (and usually detached or separated in some way) from the Primary World [i.e., our world and reality] to give them ‘secondary’ status” [4]. Importantly, world-building is distinct from narrative. Whereas a narrative is a means by which the world is experienced, world-building is a separate act which does not always include narrative. As Wolf highlights regarding Oz, L. Frank Baum’s best world-building occurred outside of his well-known work The Wizard of Oz, other works often counted as his weakest stories regarding narrative [5].

World-Building in the MCU

A recent example of world-building as opposed to story in the MCU is Disney’s She-Hulk. Although I’m only on the fourth episode, my wife and I agree on one thing: the story is mundane, unadventurous, and no particularly engaging. Such a narrative contrasts starkly with, for instance, Disney’s Shang-Chi and the Legends of the Ten Rings, which included all the elements of a good story paired with world-building. Because She-Hulk‘s narrative is so mundane (and frankly somewhat boring), the show’s reception has been relatively poor. Where She-Hulk excels, though, is in world-building. In the first four episodes, She-Hulk has worked to map out the MCU world, itself a subcreation, by showing the audience how things work and raising key questions that enable viewers to engage with the world: What happens when superheroes and villains just want to be normal? How do casual viewers perceive the folks with superpowers after the events of the first three phases of the MCU, more commonly known as The Infinity Saga? Can previous-known villains be rehabilitated and become good (e.g., Loki)? These questions are what She-Hulks explores, and the show makes secondary the importance of the narrative.

Importantly, most MCU fans or casual viewers expect that the world-building will pay off in someway down the road with more consistent and inventive films [7]. (At least I hope so.) Put another way, world-building is engaging and interesting for certain MCU fans because it pushes, (re)articulates, and clarifies the boundaries of the secondary world, the subcreation, that Disney developed since the first Iron Man movie. And this world-building keeps viewers interested. (Naturally, we need some quality stories soon.)

World-Building in Religion

World-building is also a feature in some religious traditions. In particular, though, I am interested in religious traditions that look toward history to illuminate, for instance, the “world of the Bible.” For many scholars in the twentieth century, fields like Assyriology and classics were not an end in and of themselves but served to expand the world of the Bible, sometimes the Hebrew Bible and sometimes the New Testament. Notably, though, world-building in relation to religiously authoritative scriptures, otherwise known as “the biblical world,” is not typically viewed as fiction. Instead, the world-building of a secondary world isn’t secondary in terms of reality and plausibility but only along the lines of history. And as L. P. Hartley wrote, “The past is a foreign country; they do things differently there” [8]. Thus, although world-building in relation to the Bible in religious studies is not necessarily about constructing a new, all-together separate secondary world, the world-building that occurs around the Bible nonetheless is a sort of world-building activity that is separated from the Primary World due to time and history, even if folks practicing religion view such things as reality to a degree.

Why the MCU as Religion via World-Building?

As noted, both the MCU and religion tend to partake in world-building. The difference, though, is that religion’s world-building does not decouple the subcreation from the Primary World, from reality, whereas the MCU clearly expects the audience to decouple the subcreation from reality. (Note that I know of specific children who believe that that MCU was part of the Primary World.) Such overlap in world-building, I propose, is why some religious studies scholars like to see the MCU and its fandom as religion. Although they may not say as much, fandom practices and comic book culture more broadly participate in the world-building activities of the MCU in the same way that some religious communities participate in the world-building activities of the Bible. Such a parallel creates an impression that the MCU and its fandom should be understood as a sort of religion.

The Coin’s Flip Side

The observation that religion scholars view comic book culture through the lens of religion opens up other fruitful methods for approaching religion. What if rather than approach religion through the lens of religion we instead utilized tools from fandom and media studies to explore religion and religious studies discourses as a form of world-building? This approach would essentially follow Hughes and McCutcheon’s approach of exploring why we call some things religions as well as generate new, more fruitful theories of how religion works in the twenty-first century.

[1] Aaron Ricker, “The Third Side of the Coin: Constructing Superhero Comics Culture as Religious Myth,” Arc 43 (2015): 104.

[2] Aaron W. Hughes and Russell T. McCutcheon, Religion in 50 Words: A Critical Vocabulary (New York: Routledge, 2022), 250. This emphasis reflects a broader, more recent trend in religious studies. See the referenced page for further references.

[3] Mark J. P. Wolf, Building Imaginary Worlds: The Theory of History and Subcreation (New York: Routledge, 2012).

[4] Wolf, Building Imaginary Worlds, 25.

[5] Wolf, Building Imaginary Worlds, 29.

[6] I am intentionally ambiguous regarding what I mean by “Bible” because I don’t have sufficient time to sift through Jewish and Christian times when this sort of thing happened and happens.

[7] Regarding world-building, “audience members and critical approaches that center on narrative, then, may find such excess material to be extraneous, tangential, and unnecessary, while those that consider the story’s world will find their experience enhanced.” Wolf, Building Imaginary Worlds, 3.

[8] Wolf mentions this quote in Building Imaginary Worlds, but I was unable to find it in the book.

Review: “The Oxford Handbook of the Pentateuch” edited by Joel S. Baden and Jeffrey Stackert

With resources on Pentateuchal studies spread out and difficult to access in a single location, save for The Formation of the Pentateuch (Mohr Siebeck), Joel Baden and Jeffrey Stackert’s The Oxford Handbook of the Pentateuch is a welcome addition to biblical scholarship. Indeed, the information this volume covers is extensive, and the contributions are thorough. As with any review of an Oxford handbook, a review can be voluminous (i.e., interacting with every chapter) or brief (i.e., providing a stamp of approval or denial). In this review, I aim to be brief.

First, this volume is pedagogically beneficial because it provides a wealth of accessible introductions to various aspects of pentateuchal studies. Such material may be helpful especially for upper-level undergraduates, graduate students, and non-specialists interested in pentateuchal studies. Such benefit is true especially for the chapters that summarize and synthesize scholarship history and provide simple, approachable examples source criticism. Even so, some aspects of the volume are less helpful pedagogically and may be helpful mainly to scholars. For example, Ehud ben Zvi’s chapter on social memory, while valuable for scholarship more broadly, reads more like a call to a particular approach than an introduction and scholarship overview. That is, the extent to which Ehud ben Zvi’s would be helpful in a classroom is questionable.

Second, though an unavoidable problem and not necessarily the editors’ fault, the handbook does not capture or represent key scholarship from recent years. One such example is Liane Feldman’s The Story of Sacrifice: Ritual and Narrative in the Priestly Source. (Click here for a summary of her work.) Similarly, Sara Milstein’s Making a case: The Practical Roots of Biblical Law is not referenced, a work arguing that we view biblical law are rooted not in law collections but rather in legal-pedagogical texts. Although this book has not had sufficient time to experience academia’s crucible of innovative ideas that push against traditional scholarship and dearly held positions, such an addition would have been welcome. In any case, these works are not referenced. Thus, readers should know that other approaches not discussed in the handbook are emerging. These chapters have their limitations.

Indeed, folks immersed in pentateuchal studies will like take issue with representations of scholarship, as is the case in any Oxford handbook. Even so, aside from these two comments on the volume, the handbook is a welcome, helpful, and accessible contribution to the sometimes convoluted, complex, and dense subject that is pentateuchal studies.

Review: “Making a Case: The Practical Roots of Biblical Law” by Sara J. Milstein

Sarah Milstein’s goal in Making a Case: The Practical Roots of Biblical Law is straightforward: to show why a range of biblical texts in the Pentateuch likely originated as pedagogical texts written by scribes. As such, Milstein’s discussion provides a fresh, well-reasoned alternative to more traditional historical-, form-, and redaction-critical approaches to the Pentateuch. Within this review, I will summarize Milstein’s work, highlight my criticisms, and identify places where she could push the ideas further.

In the Introduction, Milstein provides a broad overview of law collections in the ancient Near East, the genre typically used to explain the Pentateuch’s laws. Rather than using Mesopotamian law collections as an analogue for explaining texts like the Covenant Code or Deuteronomy 19-25, she instead proposes these biblical texts “are closer in form and function to the Mesopotamian corpus of legal-pedagogical texts” (15), a relatively difficult-to-access corpus due to resources “scattered in various journals and volumes” (16). As such, biblical scholarship using such material is relatively rare.

In Chapter 1, Milstein provides a broad overview of the role of legal texts in Mesopotamian scribal education. To accomplish this task, she walks through the centrality of model contracts, which overlap and parallel “in content, format, and terminology with functional contracts, legal phrasebooks, and precepts from the law collections” (26). Additionally, Milstein highlights fictional cases. Like model contracts, fictional cases overlap with some Mesopotamian laws. Equally important were legal-pedagogical texts in which scribes copied short series of laws. Notably, Milstein draws upon Canaanite parallels from the Middle Bronze Age, indicative that legal-pedagogical textual reproduction has a precedent in the Levant. (Notably, Milstein does not adequately address the problem of these Canaanite legal-pedagogical scribal texts being in the Middle Bronze Age as opposed to Israelite and Judean texts being from the Iron Age.) Finally, Milstein identifies legal phrasebooks and sequences of contractual clauses as important because these texts reflect combinations of contractual phrases and model contracts. Ultimately, Milstein effectively shows that legal-pedagogical texts, as opposed to solely Mesopotamian law collections, provide a more helpful explanatory model for explaining the roots of biblical law.

NB: This has implications attesting to the practical value of redaction. That is, redaction of biblical texts may have been far more than simply “religion” but rather was associated with everyday scribal education. We see this even in my work with Quanta Technology, where I have edited SOPs as a new employee. Indeed, these are perhaps my own “scribal exercises,” but then my manager reviews them to create a final version. As such, we can start to think beyond even a simple model of a single scribe and instead expand our thinking to account for different hands redacting and editing legal-pedagogical texts in their Sitz im Lebens.

In Chapter 2, Milstein uses the framework of legal-pedagogical texts to explain Deuteronomy’s development as a Hebrew Legal Fiction (HLF). After identifying problems with viewing Deuteronomy 12-26 as a “family law collection,” she highlights two particular case collections (Deut 22:13-21 and 22:23-29) reflecting law clusters. Rather than being real law clusters, though, she argues that these groupings in light of their redaction additions give the “illusion of a cluster of law,” a repurposed “old ‘private’ case concerning false accusations for use in a cluster of law that recast adultery as a public offense, consisting of a case and a counter-case.” She highlights similar texts: Deut 19:3-14 and Deut 22:23-29. The root for each of these cases, Milstein contends, exemplify characteristics similar the Mesopotamian legal fictions: colorful features and unusual legal situations; resonance with contracts; overlapping terminology; abundant social roles; variations on roots; and exchanges of money and pecuniary penalties. Because such themes overlap with Mesopotamian fictional cases, terms with phrasebooks, and root variation with legal-pedagogical texts, Milstein suggests that we should view such texts as being rooted in legal-scribal education. Only after these HLFs were incorporated into Deuteronomy and later scribes addended these texts did they begin to look like law collections, hence Milstein’s claim that “we have instead [. . .] the illusion of a law collection, facilitated by the later scribes’ employment of the same methods of composition and format that are present in the collections” (88).

Milstein’s line of thought is well thought out and provides a helpful alternative to thinking of biblical law solely as law collection, instead suggesting a more historically grounded origin through Mesopotamian legal fictions as an analogue. Her argument, though, may have implications beyond the Pentateuch. In particular, her argument and reframing of some biblical laws’ roots as Hebrew legal fictions may be applicable to the book of Ruth. After all, recent scholarship has explored the legal aspects of Ruth (e.g., Simeon Chavel’s recent article, as well as Brad Embry’s work). Moreover, Ruth is often used for Hebrew reading courses due to its seeming simplicity (based on my experience). Perhaps this is in part because Ruth was written as an amalgam multiple genres as a sort of scribal exercise: historiography, novella, and Hebrew legal fiction.

In Chapter 3, Milstein identifies how certain HLFs in the Hebrew Bible don’t reflect the illusion of law collections, as identified in Chapter 2, but rather reflect HLFs modeled after contracts. After providing an overview of ancient Near Eastern contracts, Milstein analyzes Deuteronomy 25:5-10 to show how the text “echoes the format of contracts” (109) and may use general terminology because the text is meant to form a fictional case. Exodus 21:7-11 and Deut 21:15-17, Milstein contends, equally function as Hebrew legal fictions in contract forms based on ancient Near Eastern parallels. As such, she suggests these texts are “rooted in knowledge of a comparable body of Israelite/Judahite contracts and/or lists of standard contractual clauses” (115).

Throughout Chapter 3, Milstein draws from Nuzi, OB, and Emar contracts to justify her approach. While utilizing such sources is by no means problematic and is methodologically justifiable, her argument would be strengthened by drawing on more Neo-Babylonian, Assyrian, and Neo-Assyrian contracts. And in light of the greater Mediterranean connections with the Sea Peoples in the eleventh century, Phoenicians, and even Philistines, greater evidence could perhaps be found with an eye to Greek and Macedonian contracts, as well as others that I may be missing.

In Chapter 4, Milstein argues that the casuistic provisions in Exodus 21:18-22:16 were initially scribal exercises. Although this textual corpus indeed appears most frequently in discussions exploring the extent to which ancient Israelite/Judahite scribes reused other ancient Near Eastern law codes, Milstein instead highlights that the nature of ancient Near Eastern law codes was that they were used for law-oriented scribal training. Turning to Exodus 21:18-22:16, she shows how the biblical text is limited in nature, similar to how other law-training scribal texts are limited in nature. Additionally, the disjointed incoherence of the text, a well-established idea among scholars, indicates this text as a possible law-training scribal text. Finally, various other ambiguities may indicate scribal errors, which themselves indicate this text was possibly a school exercise.

In Chapter 5, Milstein brings the threads of Chapters 1-4 together and reflects more broadly on the benefits of approaching biblical law in terms of legal-pedagogical material. In particular, approaching biblical law through the lens of legal-pedagogical texts not only gives “us a sense as to how law functioned in a Near Eastern educational context, but the text-types themselves illuminate aspects of ‘biblical law’ that would otherwise not be visible” (154). Thus, the purported distinctiveness of biblical law in the early 1900s remains true, not because it reflected an old law collection or an Israelite/Judahite genre but “because its building blocks are rooted in legal-pedagogical exercises that originated in the sphere of scribal education” (157). Biblical law framed through legal-pedagogical exercises, as a result, no longer fits neatly into the stream of law collections but rather has “practical roots” so that “we can begin to reconstruct both the impetus for its emergence and the uniqueness of its trajectory” (157).

Overall, Milstein’s thesis is innovative and deserve further attention. Indeed, her approach challenges deeply traditional approaches to biblical scholarship. Even so, tradition does not mean something is correct, especially as she brings imperative textual data to the fore that biblical scholars often were not aware of. I highly recommend this book for any studies on biblical law. Ignoring such an engaging and innovative work (and one that is so well written!) would be a disservice to Milstein’s contribution to the field.

Some Thoughts on the History of Sin

Shortly after graduating from U of Chicago and into the present, one of my greatest contentions with biblical scholarship has been the uncritical use of “sin.” Simply put, folks often describe any action against God or negative action against people as a sort of sin. Such perspectives are, indeed, justifiable in certain cases. Even so, I find the sin category’s uncritical application in so many circumstances problematic. Beyond the differing Hebrew (and Greek!) terms that folks sometimes group within the broader semantic category of sin, the nature of sin differs based on context. David Lambert put forth such an argument most recently.

The problem of how scholars use sin as a category to describe actions perceived as negative, though, raises another, perhaps more integral question: To what extent do broader cultural understandings of sin influence the interpretive choices that scholars make? Only by addressing this question can we begin to reassess the nature and history of sin as a concept/action/idea/etc. in the Hebrew Bible, Jewish tradition, Christian tradition, and the ancient world more broadly.

One excellent starting point for such work is in Jean Delumeau’s Sin and Fear: The Emergence of a Western Guilt Culture; 13th-18th Centuries. Although I just started reading Delumeau’s book this morning, thus far the French historian has put forward a well-articulated argument that the contempt for the world, an idea often paired with sin and less commonly known as Du Contemptu Mundi, began with Christian monastic circles in the eleventh century and become popularized especially in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. Such contempt for the world frequently explained that man “was but ‘dung’ and ‘filth” (31).

Although I’ve yet to finish the book (it is over five hundred pages long), Delumeau’s work thus far shows how sin (as a category) has existed within a particular Christian constellation of theological ideas for nearly one thousand years. This constellation undoubtedly impacted sixteenth, seventeenth, and eighteenth century biblical scholarship. Therefore, interrogating how those ideas, forged through the trials of time, continue to influence biblical scholarship is imperative.

Moreover, his work raises questions about twenty-first-century religion more broadly. For example, to what extent does sin’s conceptualization in the thirteenth through eighteenth centuries continue to influence, directly or indirectly, contemporary discourse around sin? And although I avoid questions like the following, how might recognizing such influence enable religious communities to reconceptualize and reframe sin such that they can strive for a more equitable, healthy world?

Review: “Ezekiel’s Visionary Temple in Babylonian Context” by Tova Ganzel

Tova Ganzel. Ezekiel’s Visionary Temple in Babylonian Context. BZAW 539. Berlin: de Gruyter, 2021.

Tova Ganzel’s Ezekiel’s Visionary temple in Babylonian Context is particularly refreshing as it incorporates key texts, history, and information about Neo-Babylonian temples as a means of articulating and clarifying aspects of Ezekiel’s Temple Vision. The monograph is replete with helpful introductions to those not familiar with Neo-Babylonian materials and a range of intriguing arguments that make sense of (or offer potential solutions to) religious aspects of the Temple Vision. For how Ganzel utilizes Neo-Babylonian material to make sense of Ezekiel’s Temple Vision, this volume should have relatively wide readership for folks studying Neo-Babylonia and Judeans, Ezekiel 40–48, ancient Judean religious imagination, and other related areas. Regarding this review, while I typically prefer to engage with monographs akin to an essay, time was too short for this review (I recently began working as a senior technical editor in the electrical power industry); however, I plan to reference Ganzel’s work in the future for an essay discussing oft-ignored matters in ancient Israelite and Judean scribalism, putting Ganzel’s work into conversation with Baden and Stackert’s edited volume on the Pentateuch, Milstein’s Making a Case, and other works.

Ganzel begins by thoroughly describing the narrative flow of Ezekiel 40–48. The Temple Vision (TV), she establishes, requires a two-pronged approach: Ezekiel’s TV in light of other ancient Israelite traditions and in light of the broader Neo-Babylonian (NB) milieu, textually and archaeologically. But to be clear, she argues that the NB context did not necessarily influence Ezekiel; rather, NB temples serve to contextualize Ezekiel’s vision. As such, the material may be helpful for making sense of passages that differ from other ancient Israelite legal and religious traditions. Central to her methodology, she views Ezekiel 40–48 as a single, coherent text, though she readily admits a redactional process that engendered the TV.

In chapter two, Ganzel addresses previous scholarship on the study of Judeans, especially via Ezekiel in a NB context. Surprisingly, none examine Ezekiel in light of NB. As such, Ganzel situates her works as part of this stream of scholarship while also opening a new avenue for exploration. Likewise, Ganzel offers an overview of NB archives and data for non-specialists. She then offers an overview of Judeans in Babylonian texts. Finally, she clarifies that her study is important because although the TV was not necessarily inspired by NB temples, “an ancient audience was likely to have imagined the envisioned temple construction along the lines of the temples with which it was most familiar” (29).

In chapter three, Ganzel establishes linguistic links between the TV and its NB context. Beginning broadly, Ganzel shows the linguistic overlap between Judeans and Aramaic/Akkadian, drawing on broader historical questions of Judean cuneiform texts and the lingua franc for Ezekiel’s audience. Subsequently, Ganzel identifies specific Aramaic and Akkadian influences in Ezekiel, broad but also with specific regard to temple names. Finally, by parallel with Nippur (written EN.LILki), she suggests reading יהוה שׁמה as a geographical location with Yahweh’s name + שׁמה. The second element, she suggests, functions like the determinative ki. With these linguistic links indicating Ezekiel in a NB context, she proceeds to situate the TV in NB temple.

In chapter four, Ganzel draws on NB temple architecture and mythology as a framework for understanding aspects of the TV. On the temple layout, she initially suggests that Levantine temples in Israel do not adequately match the TV; NB temples do. So, she offers a brief introduction to major NB temples (E-gig-par, Esgala, Ezida, and Temple A in Kish). She then compares them to the TV and identifies mythical elements the TV shares with NB temples. Thus, she concludes: “Ezekiel’s visionary temple, then, reflected the temples that the exiles would have seen in Babylonia in design, vessels, and kitchens, and the springs describes as emerging from it can be seen to relate to the world around them, rife as it was with water. Much of the design seems to be intended to safeguard the temple, restricting access to a select few. Thus, while access inside the temple is restricted, its effects radiate outward to all” (92).

In chapter five, Ganzel explores how the NB hierarchy sheds light on the functionaries in the TV. She initially offers a brief overview of NB functionaries, highlighting especially how the system protected a temple’s sanctity. Priest in the TV, she suggests, reflect a similar structure, although the hierarchy of functionaries in the TV mainly answer to God as opposed to the king. To further substantiate these similarities, Ganzel lays out a wide range of possible parallels between NB functionaries and priests in the TV. These functions hereby point to Ezekiel’s theocentric doctrine, “seeking to prevent desecration of the divine name” (126). Finally, she suggest the nasi in Ezekiel is a combination of the NB shatammu and qipu, functioning more as a temple administrator than a priest or king-like figure.

In chapter six, Ganzel briefly compares temple rituals in the TV with NB rituals. While referencing similarities sand difference with other biblical traditions, Ganzel quickly moves to describe the NB Akitu ritual and draws parallels with the TV. Of central importance is that the rituals in the TV are akin to the NB Akitu in terms of the focus on sanctity.

Review: “Knowledge and Rhetoric in Medical Commentary: Ancient Mesopotamian Commentaries on a Handbook of Medical Diagnosis (Sa-gig)” by John Z. Wee

John Z. Wee. Knowledge and Rhetoric in Medical Commentary: Ancient Mesopotamian Commentaries on a Handbook of Medical Diagnosis (Sa-gig). Cuneiform Monographs 49/1. Leiden: Brill, 2019.

The first person to introduce me to Akkadian medical texts was, in fact, John Z. Wee during his course in the NELC department at the University of Chicago. At the time and still now, the intersection of scholasticism and commentaries on Sa-gig struck me as noteworthy because of the pesharim in the Dead Sea Scrolls, not to mention the role of commentaries in Jewish tradition more broadly. Moreover, I was familiar with some of the more recent work exploring the intersection of Assyriology and biblical studies, especially Bronson Brown-deVost’s Commentary and Authority in Mesopotamia and Qumran, with whom I had a delightful conversation at SBL/AAR 2019 regarding my review of his book. So, although my interest in Akkadian medical texts and their commentaries is not driven primarily by an interest in pure Assyriology, such ancient literature and modern scholarship are imperative for exploring historical concepts and the development of authoritative literature in the ancient world, especially how we can more precisely identify not just what textual groupings were authoritative but how they were authoritative: What literary mechanisms did scribes use to allude to other literature, and to what ends do they draw upon that literature? What did ancient Mesopotamian commentators assume about literature, both what they drew upon to establish ideas in commentaries and what they assumed about the texts about which they commented? How do certain textual compendia and serialized texts, as well as how scribes interacted with those things, tell us about the broader structure and ancient concepts in relation to those texts? In some way, John Wee’s volume addresses all these matters. In this review, then, I will briefly summarize his work and then engage with some specific discussions in the volume.

In chapter one (part I), Wee demonstrates that Mesopotamian commentaries are more than texts explaining obscure language and cuneiform. Instead, commentaries are situated, reflecting broader knowledge assumptions of authors and readers, often with idiosyncratic comments. So, while commentaries are a distinct Mesopotamian genre, they are diverse based on their situatedness and contexts. Chapter one (part II) continues by discussing Sa-gig and it’s serialization. Here he focuses on three aspects. First, Sa-gig means, more or less, “the bundling together of sickness” or “all sickness” (25). Second, Sa-gig is designed for magicians, or ashipu. Wee explains this via the origins of Sa-gig: since Esagil-kin-apli was a magician, the text bore authority for those in the ashipu profession. Third, the language in what we call “Esagil-kin-apli’s Manifesto” conveys an image of editorial activity via a metaphor of binding textual strands into a single composition. In part III, he continues with further consideration of Sa-gig’s nature as a serialized text. Considering manuscript variants, he identifies multiple types of variants. (Notably, he doesn’t attempt to prune these variants. Note that this comment is a joke, a reference to Loki.) In his words, “No matter what motivated editors to combine incongruous or even contradictory written descriptions, they gave no indication that later audiences were supposed to pick out the ‘correct’ variant, or that two embedded variants in the same manuscript were not to be considered as both legitimate. Whatever the textual history behind embedded variants, once they were transmitted and received as features of serialized texts, they all became integral to the logic and interpretation of the larger discourse” (51). In other words, variants were not for picking one over the other but rather were incorporated into the discourse’s logic. To conclude chapter one (part IV), Wee explores how and why commentaries use the A:B equation for “interchangeable alternatives in the syntax and context of their larger narrative.” In the serialization process, he suggests the scribal equation A:B was a standard equation for embedded variants. Commentators use this same interpretive framework, ensuring the A:B equation preserved “the perceived significance or original scenarios” (83).

In chapter two (part I), Wee examines various commentary designations. After analyzing each category, he offers a hierarchy: satu and mukallimtu are the main commentary designations. These categories are then qualitified by lower-level categories like shut pi or mash’altu. The final level was the scribal lesson (preserved as cuneiform commentary in a specific tablet). This category invoked ummanu-scholar authoritative teaching for single base text tablets. Moreover, he shows that the level below satu and makallimtu “describe the general approach, philosophy, and method applied to the study of the base text composition” (141). In part II, Wee explores from whence commentators drew from for textual authority and how they used such materials. Working through a broad range of examples, he distinguishes between two types of citation: lexical text citation and narratival intertextuality. Barring my issue with how scholars abuse the term “intertextual,” this distinction is quite productive. Whereas lexical text citations enabled commentators to “adduce logical relationships between lexical entries in close proximity, as if they comprise a single block of text,” narratival intertexuality allowed commentators to “disregard major themes, priorities, and even context of the larger discourse, focusing instead on a lone sentence or turn of phrase for the meaning of an individual word or expression” (183). Part III of chapter two shifts to more technical discussion of the forms of argumentation in Mesopotamian commentaries. Suffice it to say that Wee is remarkably thorough and detailed here, and some Assyriologists will undoubtedly take issue with some parts of this chapter.

Part IV of chapter two offers some final comments to tie the loose ends together. Considering how authority resided in a text, he suggests that the majority of commentaries were “primarily concerned with the meanings of individual expression and ideas, rather than with articulating or promoting selected methods of interpretation” (282). That is, few commentaries—save for the example he offers of the Esoteric Babylonian commentary that functions as an exemplar for certain methods of interpretation—use methodological exemplars. Rather, authority often depended on the “intentions and proclivities of the individual interpreter” (285) within a particular place and time, and so distinguishing between “authority conferred upon a text or technique and that which was inherent in them” is difficult.

Part I of chapter three shifts gears and discusses the macrostructure of Sa-gig itself. Most notably, he considers this structure in light of the therapeutic tradition, especially focusing on how Sa-gig I–III is framed through time, IV–V as the stage for therapy, and VI as focused on other bodies. Part II of chapter three identifies that selected textual elements “reveal knowledge assumptions by commentators concerning their audience” (356). Although that observation is not particularly surprising or revelatory, he nonetheless sheds light on the types of knowledge that would have been taken for granted or required further explanation. Part III briefly considers how folks used Sa-gig, based on the commentaries and their origins. First, Uruk commentaries are typically about Sa-gig II, which makes sense because Sa-gig I–III were “atypical in the medical curriculum so far” (421). By contrast, Sa-gig IV and V were not new threads—that is, they were typical knowledge—and so we have less commentaries. As such, Wee suggests that “the individual Sa-gig tablet came to be treated as a self-contained unit of text for purposes of reading and even instruction,” hence the entries were not approached as a kind of narrative. Wee concludes by contextualizing Mesopotamian scholasticism with the broader swathe of European universities in the Middle Ages and into the Renaissance, offering thoughts on how Sa-gig commentaries speaks to scholasticism.

Admittedly, things became busier than expected when I began this book (e.g., COVID-19, new jobs, health issues, etc.). As such, I was unable to interact with this volume as closely as I had hoped. Nonetheless, I offer some minor critiques here and continue by discussing a few routes that scholars outside of Assyriology and medical texts might be able to engage with and utilize Wee’s work.

First, though Wee even notes that “adequate treatment of the issue of canonization is beyond the scope of this volume” (37), his brief consideration does oversimplify the notion of “conferral of canonical status.” Indeed, canon is highly problematic within religious and biblical studies. As such, scholars have spent countless hours and pens processing, articulating, and defining the term canon, not to mention the work of literary theory scholars. As such, that Wee simplifies things to “a strict distinction between the formation of a text ‘series’ and the conferral of canonical status” strikes me a problematic. Although minor, he seems more to claim that he wants to understand Sa-gig and serialized variants as part of a series, not as the unstable category of canon. Unfortunately, his discussion reads as if the term canon is consistent and stable, when in fact it is unstable and highly problematic. Thus, folks interested in drawing from his work to think about notions of textual compendia in the ancient world will need to wrestle with his discussion and reconsider his comments on canon. Nonetheless, thinking about the Sa-gig and its commentaries is, I think, imperative for exploring notions of so-called canon in the ancient world more broadly.

Second, though I do not intend to critique so much as to draw attention to an interesting observation, when Wee discusses textual authority of sources, he articulates the different between lexical text citations and what he calls “narratival intertextuality.” Whereas commentators drew from lexical texts and entries as “blocks of text,” they often ignored the broader context—seemingly an interpretive choice—when drawing from narrative textual sources of authority (160–162). How scribes distinguished between lexical texts and narrative texts, as well as how they interacted with them in discrete ways, is imperative to thinking more broadly about the role of narrative and stories in the ancient world. In particular, I think to the popularity of innerbiblical exegesis and intertextuality in biblical studies. Indeed, we can identify when Text A incorporates Text B, but a more systematic analysis of how texts use other texts (i.e., the extent to which they disregard context) with regard to genre would be a fruitful way to thinking about ancient Judean interpretive and literary practices.

In short, John Wee’s Knowledge and Rhetorical in Medical Commentary in an erudite and refreshing analysis of Sa-gig and its commentaries. Although a highly specialized subject, some of his broader observations about serialization, canonization, textual sources of authority, and embedded variants may be helpful for folks in religious studies thinking about so-called canon, interpretive practices and textual sources of authority, and the boundaries in the ancient world of what we often designate science and literature.

Review: “The Emergence of Subjectivity in the Ancient and Medieval World: An Interpretation of Western History” by Jon Stewart

Jon Stewart. 2020. The Emergence of Subjectivity in the Ancient and Medieval World: An Interpretation of Western History. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

In The Emergence of Subjectivity in the Ancient and Medieval World: An Interpretation of Western Civilization, Jon Stewart draws from philosophical anthropology (“the study of what it is to be human” [10]) and the philosophy of history (“a field that attempts to find patterns or regularities in history” [10]) “to trace the various self-conceptions of different cultures as they developed historically” (11). In particular, following Charles Taylor, he focuses on inwardness, subjectivity, and individual freedom. But whereas Taylor discusses the modern world, Stewart explores inwardness and subjectivity in the ancient world, or rather its development. He defines inwardness and subjectivity broadly, involving moral sensibilities, feeling about right and wrong, one’s role in the universe, relationships to nature and gods, conceptions of the soul and afterlife, and human freedom and culpability. Exploring such ideas, Stewart suggests, help us “better understand our own modern views about what it is to be human” (18).

Indeed, the introduction offers an important and admirable goal. Within various fields, notions of interiority are a hot topic. Likewise, the problem of what being human means is central and particularly relevant in the twenty-first century, a period fraught with competing ideas about how to understand our role in the world as humans. But Stewart’s introduction does not adequately discuss his method and various assumptions. Methodologically, for instance, he suggests that folks in the humanities “study different cultural products in their original context” (7). Stewart is correct to a degree. But reality and practice are different. Though we try to understand texts in their original context, whether the period somebody wrote them or in their reception history, we still read such texts in our own contexts. As such, we interpret cultural products in light of how we perceive the world to function, our assumptions about logic, materiality, and language inputted into the text. As such, that Stewart does not mention or discuss the problem of the reader’s situatedness strikes me as a missed opportunity.

Equally equivocal is his designation of what constitutes a canonical Western text. He refers to “the canonical texts of the Western tradition” (9). At no point does he explain what texts constitute this supposed tradition, why they matter, or how one decides what texts to include. Moreover, as a brief overview of twentieth-century critical theorists illuminates, canon is not self-evident. Thus, Stewart perpetuates the false idea that we can objectively identify a Western canon.

What’s more, the assumption of canon is the symptom of a broader problem: Stewart’s work orientalizes non-Western texts. As Edward Said suggests, orientalizing is not so much about understand the Other than it is about constructing a Western identity at the expense of the Other. (In Said’s words, “Indeed, my real argument is that Orientalism is—and does not simply represent—a considerable dimension of modern political-intellectual culture, and as such has less to do with the Orient than it does with ‘our’ world” [Edward Said, “From Orientalism,” in The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism, 1793]). Stewart does this, in a way, by subsuming all the texts that he examines, including the Hebrew Bible, the Epic of Gilgamesh, Greek works, the Gospel of Matthew, and Latin works, as texts that allow an “overview of Western civilization” (10). That is, Stewart’s use and organization of these texts effectively categorizes them as Western, using them to construct a history of the West.

In chapter 1, Stewart explores the Epic of Gilgamesh. To discuss the broad notion of inwardness and subjectivity, he introduces the text, identifies multiple key passages to discuss various themes, and provides some other, general discussion. Although my role as a reviewer is to include a summary reflective of the book’s central claims, such a task is remarkably difficult because the chapter is haphazardly composed, without any clear central claim and reading more like a series of short, unrelated essays. This problem is consistent throughout the book. As I noted, Stewart’s definition of inwardness and subjectivity is too broad. So, in trying to cover all the matters in his definition, the chapters become convoluted and difficult to follow, with no clear line of continuity.

Additionally, the chapter is unnecessarily long. Although summaries and the history of scholarship are interesting, they take the bulk of space. As a result, the chapter, and most chapters, are mostly summaries rather than nuanced analysis. And while he offers interesting thoughts, he does not usually substantiate them with secondary literature or the primary text. By reducing the summaries and including more detailed analysis throughout, the book could be better and shorter.

In chapter 2, he explores Genesis 1–11 and Job. Like chapter 1, he briefly discusses the history of scholarship, followed by snippets and themes in Genesis 1–11 and Job. As with his discussion about Gilgamesh, his interaction with primary or secondary literature is minimal. And as a person in the field of biblical studies, I see how problematic the absence is. It results in many false, dubious, and unsubstantiated statements [1].

In chapters 3–10, he discusses a wide range of Greek and Latin texts. Since I am not an expert of Greek or Latin literature, I group these chapters together. They follow the same structure as chapters 1–2: an introduction followed by a range of texts and themes. Similarly, he rarely engages with secondary or primary materials. On account of this, I am skeptical about many of his interpretations. One chapter stood out in particular—Sophocles’s Oedipus the King.

In this chapter, Stewart argues that Oedipus’s self-knowledge is a sort of hubris that leads to his downfall, and he makes comparisons with Genesis 2–3 and 11. This reading struck me as odd. Indeed, Oedipus seeks knowledge, but he seeks it so as to lift the curse, not trying “to be like the god Apollo” (148), as Stewart suggests. Such a claim, as far as I can tell, misrepresents the play. Investigating further, I realized another issue: that Oedipus’s problem is the hubris of knowledge is not an original idea. In The Birth of Tragedy, Nietzsche comments on knowledge and hubris in Oedipus Rex: “It is as though the myth whispered to us that wisdom, and especially Dionysiac wisdom, is an unnatural crime, and that whoever, in pride of knowledge, hurls nature into the abyss of destruction, must himself experience nature’s disintegration” (1956 translation by Francis Golffing). That knowledge leads to destruction is precisely how Nietzsche and Stewart read Oedipus Rex, but for all Stewart writes about knowledge as hubris he never references Nietzsche. While I cannot explain why Stewart does not refer to Nietzsche, his claims about Oedipus as reflecting Nietzsche’s reading bring two things to my mind. First, Nietzsche was not a classicist or historian. As far as I can tell from a cursory overview, classicists took issue with his readings. As such, Stewart’s discussion is problematic, issues of citations and ethical standards aside. Second, this section raises a deeper issue: How often does Stewart elide citations and pass them off as his own? Just as the chapters on the Hebrew Bible and Gilgamesh include dubious claims that I could identify because I know those texts and the scholarship, I wonder how many claims in his discussion of Greek and Latin texts likewise are based on weak grounds, or even other people’s arguments without a citation or reference.

Beyond matters of citation, how Stewart puts different traditions into conversation is questionable. While cross-cultural comparisons are valuable, how he compares Jewish, Christian, and Greek concepts is overly simplistic. While discussing natural law versus relativism, he puts forth problematic claims. First, he invokes the concept of “the Judeo-Christian tradition” (149). (For the history and discussion of why this category is unhelpful, see James Loeffler’s “The Problem With the ‘Judeo-Christian Tradition’ ” in The Atlantic.) He then makes the dubious claim that Judeo-Christian tradition believes that “laws of ethics are absolutes that are non-negotiable” (149). As such, “it would be absurd for individual human beings to rebel against these laws” (149–50). Here Stewart is simply wrong. Regarding negotiability, we see a wide range of ethical norms in the Hebrew Bible, Jewish tradition, and Christian traditions. Sometimes these ethics are rooted in divine authority, other times more akin to natural law. And in some texts, we see ethical tensions with no clear ethical norm. And, third-century BCE through first-century CE Jewish and Christian texts pick up on the idea of natural law! In short, then, Stewart constructs a misrepresentation of Jewish and Christian traditions so they can neatly and easily contrast with Greek traditions. (See, for example, “The Sibylline Oracles,” Josephus’s histories, and John Barton’s Ethics in Ancient Israel.)

In chapter 11, he explores subjectivity in Matthew. In addition to the previous criticisms, this chapter is surprising because he draws from Kierkegaard rather than biblical scholars to explain the notion of offense. Why draw from a nineteenth-century philosopher rather than biblical scholars when discussing the Gospel of Matthew? Even if his goal is a philosophical history, he misses a wealth of scholarship that would speak to his research interest.

In the final chapter, Stewart offers a range of concluding thoughts of his history of so-called Western civilization and subjectivity. The heightened version of subjectivity in the modern world—something that would have been progressive in the ancient world—creates a problem. Whereas in the ancient world one “enjoyed a sense of immediate belonging in their world with traditional values and customs, we moderns, wallowing in alienation, can never hope to re-establish this” (358). So, while the modern world was able to develop legal institutions and individual freedom, it developed simultaneously increasing alienation and isolation. Such alienation and “breakdown of traditional values and institutions” (359), he suggests, engenders a societal challenge to self-identity formation. To deal with this problem, social media emerged as a tool for identity formation, albeit one “constantly on him- or herself and not on the external world” (364). This self-obsession on social media he calls narcissism. And since social media is not the “real world,” he doubts social media can solve the problem of alienation. He links this issue to the rise of relativism and the disappearance of truth, a world in which a fictional self-image answers the problem of alienation. So, Stewart claims, it appears we live in a post-truth world. The rise of relativism, alienation, and extreme subjectivity thus yields more people seeking group identity, such as nationalism. Therefore, Stewart suggests a balance between extreme subjectivity and communal identity. We should seek this balance via reflection on the history of Western civilization.

Now, the acute reader will see that I spent more time summarizing this chapter, the conclusion, than any other chapter. The reasons are threefold. First, unlike the other chapters, the conclusion provides a clear through line and coherent, cogent claims. As such, I can effectively engage with his arguments, observations, conclusions, and logic. Additionally, his take on subjectivity is thoughtful and interesting and could stand apart from the book, as it does not rely heavily on the discussion in chapters 2–13. Therefore, I do not suspect it is rooted in nonfactual information, as much of the other chapters either are or may be. Lastly, the final chapter is worth engaging with because the ideas are interesting. So, in the next few paragraphs I analyze Stewart’s logic and conclusions. Admittedly, I disagree with most of his logic and conclusions, but they are not entirely wrong. Instead, I interact with his arguments to refine and nuance his ideas.

Stewart first highlights how shifts toward extreme individualism engender individual alienation. Indeed, extreme individualism can engender and increase isolation. Where I take issue is the strong distinction he makes between communalism and individualism. While individuals may no longer turn toward the government or authority figures since they do not always represent the individual, the implication is not that people necessarily turn inward, diminishing “the traditional sense of solidarity, community, and civic obligation” (358). Rather, people seek different communities and solidarity groups. Such groups, though, are not as apparent, perhaps because they are smaller, more localized, disconnected from powerful institutions, and less public. So, while folks may turn inward, Stewart’s grim picture of communal externalism versus individual inwardness seems to focus on the spectrum’s extremes, not tapping into the grey zone. Taking the extremes as a clear dichotomy appears yet again in his contrasting the ancient with the modern. While ancients may have been more communal and relied on tradition in a way that we might call uncritical, it is not as if ancient people never felt alienation, as is evident in various Mesopotamian literary texts, Job, Psalms, and, I suspect, other ancient literature from around the world.

Furthermore, if we accept that modern people struggle more with self-identity than ancient people—itself a dubious claim—social media, Stewart argues, enables self-identity construction but also gives rise to highly internalized, individualistic, and narcissistic people, since he perceives social media as mainly for constructing a self. On a few fronts, Stewart is undoubtedly correct. Social media can increase isolation and alienation; it is a tool for self-identity construction. But his representation of social media and self-identity formation is far too simplistic. For instance, his suggestion that the rapid development of social media is a “testimony to the important need that it fills” (364), namely, to be part of something and not alienated, fails to interrogate the why. That is, did social media emerge because it purportedly solved the modern alienation and self-identity problem? Or did social media create the problem of alienation and self-identity formation so that it could then offer a solution? Or is another explanation possible?

Equally in need of nuance is his representation of social media as primarily a narcissistic, self-identity platform. While he is correct that social media is about identity formation and can (but not always!) lead to narcissism, this representation is not always true. In my experiences with Twitter, for example, my constructing a self-identity via the platform is also a means to network—or rather socialize—with others in my field of study. Likewise, my wife has found many social groups on Facebook that make her part of a community, of something larger. Therefore, social media is not all about the individual; social media also involves socializing, networking, and engaging with others, albeit digitally.

With this nuanced understanding of social media, I can thus interrogate what Stewart calls the external, real world and the inward, online world. If we understand social media as a real social interaction, then the boundaries between the online and real world become less clear. For even if people stare at their phones, they also discuss content. And as my wife noted, people used to interact with file cabinets, multiple notepads, newspapers, magazines, books, media, and crossword puzzles; however, those tools and activities are now available via a single material object. As such, how we engage with the single material object frequently is just as “inward” as how people used tools and materials 30 years ago. So, if anything, social media is a place where people create content, discuss real life, and engage with the same things they did 30 years ago, albeit via a single material object, such as a phone or computer. Thus, Stewart should further nuance the connection between the virtual world and the nonvirtual world instead of viewing them as a dichotomy.

He continues by suggesting social media leads to a fictional version of one’s self online. As such, whereas in what he calls real life one is special by “verifiable skills, talents, personal qualities, experiences” (368), and more, the online world is about persuading others that you are special. Fictional selves then give rise to relativism and the idea that factual bases do not exist. Of all Stewart’s arguments in this chapter, this section is the most problematic. For from his sharp distinction between the real world and the online world arises the distinction between an online fictional self and a real-world self. These categories are highly problematic, especially the idea that the online and real worlds function differently. Consider, for instance, the role of speech. Even if an individual has no experience or knowledge in a field, people often perceive loud and intense speakers as bearing more authority than a soft-spoken expert. Consider the COVID-19 world, for instance: people frequently turn to congress people as authorities on infectious diseases because said congress people speak from a position of authority and power. Yet, those people often have no training, skills, experiences, or expertise with infectious diseases! Instead, people perceive them as authoritative because of their self-representation as (fictional) experts. And social media is the same! Via careful rhetoric individuals can represent themselves as critical and knowledgeable without a lick of criticism or knowledge. In both cases, an individual self-represents via persuasion, not skills or knowledge. Thus, to distinguish strongly between real life and social media in terms of real skills versus fictional skills strikes me as short sighted. And though I will not discuss this point ad nauseam, many parallels between real life and social media are evident: representing one’s self as an artist via Instagram versus an art gallery or as a rhetorically witty person via Twitter versus in debates; emphasizing different aspects of once identity based on their location is social media (e.g., Twitter, Facebook group, private chat, etc.) versus the real world (public meeting; home with family; out with a friend; etc.). In both the real world and online world, people select and front aspects of their selves to construct an identity. Thus, the claim that the real world is about being and the online world is about persuading does not hold up to scrutiny. Instead, we always persuade others about our identities.

As such, his argument that fictional selves or social media give rise to absolute relativism is on weak grounds. Even if we accept his claim about relativism—which seems overly simplified to me—that the construction of fictional selves necessarily engenders this relativism does not logically follow, especially since his understanding of social media and self-representation is fraught with misunderstandings about how it functions. Moreover, his description of relativism yet again falls into a framework he uses regularly. Rather than identify the nuance and describe a spectrum, he focuses on the extremes of the spectrum: modern versus ancient, internal versus external, fact versus nonfact, relativism versus objectivity.

He concludes by suggesting that we must strike a balance between objectivity and subjectivity. While I do not disagree, I cannot help but wonder, “Is this idea not what many others have already said in different words, what humanities scholars do on a daily basis?” In other words, he develops what may be a recycled conclusion through a series of extremes. Rather than claiming a broad unity between objectivity and subjectivity, his argument would be more effective pedagogically had he demonstrated how to function within that framework. (Recall that he envisions undergraduates using this book in a classroom.)

As the reader may have guessed, I was not a fan of this book. The idea is interesting and important, but Stewart does not execute it well. And the book is not coherent or cogent, save for the last chapter. And even this chapter was chock-full of overly simplified paradigms and misunderstandings of how social media works. So, folks researching issues of subjectivity should engage with this book if they seek specific content. But on account of the lack of coherent and cogency, use of outdated scholarship, wrong facts, and overly simplified discussions, I do not recommend this book for courses or casual reading. And while Stewart is clearly an accomplished scholar, it seems best that he continue to focus and work on Hegel, Kierkegaard, and other philosophers, not ancient literature. Unless another book comes along or Stewart writes a more critical and academically rigorous volume on subjectivity in the ancient world, folks are better off reading older works on subjectivity.

[1] The following are examples of the incorrect information that Stewart offers: he claims that Abraham would have know the flood narrative because he was from Ur (38), but biblical scholars view Genesis as a myth and etiology, not history; he describes prayer as a form of sorcery (45); he frames Genesis 1–3 as describing the Fall, which is more of a Christian tradition than a close reading of the text; he describes Noah as the first patriarch (61), which is problematic; he mentions sin in Gen 1–3 even though sin does not appear until Genesis 4; his references for Job are outdated; he appears to read the Hebrew Bible as representing a monolithic religious tradition, though he does not explore much outside of Genesis 1–11 and Job. While I saw more examples in other chapters, I do not care to list all problematic claims here and instead focus on the broad, systemic issues that I identify I the review.

Review: “First Isaiah” by J. J. M. Roberts

J. J. M. Roberts. First Isaiah. Hermeneia. Minneapolis: Fortress Press. 2015.

*After reading the book but before writing my review, I read Matthew Neujahr’s review (click here for his review). He details aspects of Roberts’s commentary that I noticed but do not discuss in my review. Instead, I detail aspects of Roberts’s commentary that Neujahr does not discuss or address. As such, I highly recommend reading Neujahr’s review in addition to this review.

J. J. M. Roberts has published many articles about Isaiah, ancient Near Eastern history and religion, and the Hebrew Bible more broadly. This commentary on First Isaiah, one might presume, would be his magnum opus, an erudite and critical synthesis of his scholarship and work in Isaiah, historical-critical scholarship, and ancient Near Eastern history since completing his dissertation in 1969. Unfortunately, Roberts does not come through. Indeed, his commentary offers a range of interesting nuggets, attends to historical-critical problems, and includes reference to various manuscript traditions. But the strengths of the volume do not outweigh the more systemic problems. As such, I will discuss a few of these systemic problems. To be clear, my goal is not to emphasize this volume is worthless. For while one might use different, and arguably better, commentaries, one may still find undeveloped ideas and observations in the commentary worthy of further synthesis and discussion. So, my hope is that this review enables scholars to be aware of any issues with the commentary should they refer to it in any capacity.

One of the most frequent, reoccurring frames through his volume is the Zion tradition. (Reference to “the Zion tradition” as opposed to “Zion traditions” reflects his language, not mine.) While the Zion tradition is not fundamentally problematic, how he uses this framework for interpretation is somewhat haphazard and uncritical. Indeed, he uses a singular, not the plural, to describe the Zion tradition. From the outset, Roberts comments that “the Zion tradition was the main theological influence on Isaiah’s thought” (5). Beyond this statement’s seemingly massive generalization, he seems to assume a monolithic notion of Zion tradition. The heading, in fact, for Jon Levenson’s (ABD 6:1098–102) article on this tradition in Anchor Bible Dictionary is “Zion Traditions,” the title and his discussion indicating that such a tradition is not monolithic but rather multivocal. At no point in the commentary, though, does Levenson refer to Zion traditions, nor does he specify why he speaks of a monolithic Zion tradition as opposed to a multifaceted tradition, which is more in line with the major work on Zion theology and tradition. Even Ollenburger’s Zion, The City of the Great King: A Theological Symbol of the Jerusalem Cult (1987, 146), though mentioning the Zion tradition, explains that the term regards Zion as a symbol in a broader, diverse symbolic network. That is, Ollenburger allows for the multivocality of the term “Zion tradition. Thus, the question remains for Roberts: What does he mean by “the Zion tradition”?

Now, Roberts seemingly answers this question. Note 8 in the introduction refers to a 2012 article entitled “Public Opinion, Royal Apologetics, and Imperial Ideology.” He comments that earlier articles are cited in this article. After looking at these citations, the lack of references struck me. Roberts cite four articles; and he published each of those articles. Moreover, the works are relatively outdated (1973, 1982, 2002, 2003), especially since he likely finished writing all the articles prior to 2002 (accounting for the production time for the 2003 article). Such outdated and self-referential citations strike me as problematic, and they suggest an insular echo chamber within which Roberts does not deal adequately with approaches to Zion traditions that do not agree with his own. Indeed, that problem compounds and becomes more apparent due to the minimal engagement with any secondary materials, as Matthew Neujahr notes in his 2018 review.

Another ill-defined aspect are his assumptions regarding poetic structure. Throughout the commentary’s textual notes, Roberts frequently makes textual emendations based on whether parallelism is out of place, based on his idea of what constitutes good poetic structure. Three examples will suffice to demonstrate that his assumptions about what makes sense or constitutes normal parallelism may hinder our understanding of the text.

First, he comments on the parallelism in Isaiah 1:13. The MT’s אָוֶן וָעֲצָרָה he calls an “odd parallelism that seems strangely out of place.” So, following only the LXX, he emends אָוֶן to צום on that basis that צום parallels עצרה better in terms of parallelism (16). He does not consider, though that perhaps the tension between אָוֶן and עֲצָרָה is precisely what the text brings to the table. That is, the deity’s speech may construct a tension between Israelite iniquity and their festive gatherings, the עֲצָרָה. In other words, rather than changing the text based on what he perceives to be better parallelism, Roberts should begin by taking the text on its own terms, rhetorically and philology—he does not do this. (Notably, the LXX support his emendation; however, other MSS do not support his emendation.) Similarly, Roberts removes the phrase קָרָמִים וְהַנִשָּׂאִים from Isaiah 2:13 on the grounds that it “disturbs the balance of the poetic parallelism” (38). Were manuscript evidence extant, I might accept Roberts’s claim, but even Roberts admits that the phrase appears in all manuscript traditions! So, yet again Roberts relies on a constructed notion of “good” parallelism, without other manuscript evidence, to make textual deletions. Finally, Roberts suggests emending the second word דּוֹדִי in Isaiah 5:1 to דּוֹדַי because the “slight emendation of the vocalization [. . .] avoids redundancy” (70). Perhaps unsurprisingly, this emendation finds no support in 1QIsaa or other manuscripts. Thus, we see yet again a pattern of emending that is based on an ill-defined notion of what constitutes good poetry.

I do not highlight these examples to be nitpicky. Rather, these examples point to a broader methodological and systemic problem: he organizes poetry and emends texts with no evidence more than his subjective sense of what constitutes good poetry. He should have made clear his position on poetry and when textual emendations are, in his view, necessary. I suspect this systemic problem is also a result of his poorly defined method and theoretical assumptions. Indeed, he mentions issues of textual emendations; however, his stance, method, theory, and underlying assumptions are equivocal. For instance, he writes that “there is no virtue in teasing a bogus meaning out of an obviously corrupt text” (7). How, though, does he determine what is “obviously corrupt”? Likewise, even if the Hebrew Bible require more “creative conjectural emendation than would be the case in New Testament studies,” how he decides what constitutes a reasonable creative emendation is unclear. Had he defined this creative endeavor and offered a methodology, he may have avoided, or at least explained, putting forth so many seemingly unsubstantiated textual emendations. (Admittedly, other scholarship may have influenced some of his emendations; however, he does not refer to such scholarship.)

Equally unclear is how he determines whether two pericopes in Isaiah, or elsewhere in the Hebrew Bible, bear a literary connection. Though frequently invoking the term allusion, he never defines the term, nor does he use the concept consistently. For example, he suggests that Isaiah 30:28 is an intentional allusion to Isaiah 8:7–8; however, he offers no justification as to why it constitutes an allusion. After all, just because the same word—or even phrase—appears in two places does not necessarily mean any degree of textual allusion (398). Such failure to use allusion consistently or identify a working method and definition is consistent through the commentary.

More broadly, and beyond these systemic issues, the commentary is best characterized as haphazardly composed. Indeed, he offers important comments here and there. But Roberts rarely interacts directly with secondary sources (even with a rich bibliography!) and does not dig into content that he could have synthesized into broader conclusions in the introduction. To these unsynthesized observations I shift.

Relevant to my interests, Roberts frequently discuss the problem of the speaker and addressee, highlighting how the text may address a fictive addressee like a foreign nation but direct the oracle itself at the Judean court. Such comments appear especially in his discussion of the הוי oracles. But he never synthesizes problems of the speaker, the real addressee, the fictive addressee, the reader, and other aspects of the speaker–addressee paradigm. For example, how does the addressee impact the speaker’s register? How does the speaker represent speech from non-Judeans, such as Egyptians or Nubians? If we assume the oracles addressed representatives of various nations originally, what is the rhetorical impact and religious significance of directing oracles secondarily to a Judean audience? And what even is the imagined public and Judean royalty in Isaiah? To what degree are they diverse or monolithic? Dealing with such broader, systemic issues in Isaiah would strengthen the commentary.

Similarly, as anyone who read Isaiah knows, Isaiah is replete with texts that flow and ebb with unexpected shifts in the verbal subject and speaker. While he rightly notes such instances throughout the commentary, but not always, I wonder if synthesizing how Isaiah uses enallage may shed light on the composition as a whole and, perhaps, ancient Judean religious and rhetorical ideas. (See, for example, Marc Brettler’s comments on the dearth of enallage in biblical studies at TheTorah.com.)

For both speech and enallage, as well as other content discussed in this review, the introduction would have been a great place to discuss and outline such ideas, showing how the ideas fit into broader scholastic discourse on Isaiah. And an expanded introduction in general would strengthen the volume. In particular, I would have like more on Roberts’s methodology and a thorough overview of the history of scholarship. Unfortunately, the introduction is so broad that it leaves the reader without any sense of the history of scholarship and unclear how Roberts’s commentary fits into the broader systems of scholarship about Isaiah, especially since he rarely interacts with his secondary material in the introduction and commentary.

Even with these criticisms, the volume is not all bad. Indeed, the textual notes often refer to other manuscript traditions and translations. So, such references may be helpful for people not learned in Latin, Syriac, and Greek. Granted, noting every instance of plene spelling in 1QIsaa seems unnecessary and excessive. Likewise, the volume may be of interest to folks with historical-critical interests, though he does not include much in-depth interaction with previous works, nor does he include much in the way of footnotes.

Before concluding this review, I have a relatively extensive list of more specific criticisms.

  • In various places he brings David into the text when David is absent, especially when he invokes the Zion tradition. In various places, that is, he claims that the text refers to David, such as the “hegemony of the Davidic monarchy” (170) and the restoration of “the ancient ideal of the Davidic monarchy” (186). The texts for which he invokes the Davidic monarchy, though, include no explicit mention of David. And Roberts does not explain why the Davidic monarchy might be relevant.
  • Though Roberts clearly knows much about Mesopotamian history, at one point he wastes nearly two full pages citing texts from ancient Near Eastern inscription (180–81). And the full quotations do not bring much more to the text than a short paragraph could have brought.
  • He perpetuates the outdated notion of women participating in so-called pagan worship via Adonis gardens in ancient Israel (244).
  • Some of his readings are not attentive to the text, such as his comment on Isaiah 19:5–15 where he claims that Egypt will collapse politically and economically on account of Yahweh’s judgment. While true to a degree, that the verbs do not associate the drought in Egypt to Yahweh’s agency is notable; instead, Yahweh’s action in the narrative is to add a spirit of confusion (256–60).
  • He claims that Isaiah 24 is a worldwide judgment; however, this understanding is overblown, since the text only refers to the range as from the sea to the east; however, Roberts never puts forward an explanation for what constitutes the east in Isaiah and how far the east reaches (310). Likewise, the text does not mention the north or south.
  • While others such as Neujahr point to Roberts’s discussion of Mari as helpful in understanding Isaiah, I am left wondering about the value of 16th-century materials and political situations on an 8th-century BCE text. I would have liked if Roberts had not just highlighted how texts from Mari might explain Isaiah but also why a text predating Isaiah by 800 years is relevant (372–73).
  • Roberts often assumes an orality-versus-written dichotomy. Recent work by Jacqueline Vayntrub, though argues that orality is a literary trope, not necessarily the historical situation. So, consideration of this problem would have strengthened his volume. Instead, thinking about how Isaiah’s speech appears as “the presentation of speech in the mouth of a socially authoritative individual” (Vayntrub 2019, 204), regardless of the historical background of what Isaiah actually did, may have been a more productive route for exploring speech in Isaiah.
  • Though I do not catalogue every instance, equating the term typically translated “iniquity” as “sin” strikes me as problematic (421). Indeed, the terms may be equivalent in some situations; however, their equivalence is equivocal and depends on the context.
  • He draws from Gustaf Dalman’s Arbeit und Sitte in Palästina to argue for the meaning of a noun as ankle chain jewelry (63). But Dalman’s work is orientalists and regards the early 20th century. Thus, its relevance for an 8th-century BCE text is unclear.

In conclusion, Roberts is an excellent scholar; however, for a broad introduction to and thorough understanding of First Isaiah, his commentary is not the best option. Granted, scholars investigating Isaiah, whether with historical-critical, literary, or philological questions, should consult Roberts’s commentary on First Isaiah. But readers should remember that his use of Zion tradition, textual emendations, short introduction, and unsynthesized observations are broader issues in the commentary.

Typographical Errors: Period should be a question mark after “like a dried-up tree” (34); comma needed in the phrase “inserted unchanged in an” before “unchanged” (164); a bibliographic entry for Albright writes “Preëxilic” instead of “Preexilic” (296); inconsistent spacing regarding typesetting, as far as I can tell (352–3); missing “r” in “Assyria” (385); a double space at the beginning of a sentence instead of a single space (389); missing “t” on “heart” (421).

*I want to express my gratitude to Fortress Press for providing a copy in exchange for my honest opinions.

Forthcoming (and Some Previous) Events, Articles, and Books*

I have been adding things to this list over the last month or two. As such, some events may have already happened and some articles may be old news at this point. Moreover, I include some articles and books not because they are new but because they are classics that I want to read. Enjoy!

Events

Everything from The BRANE Collective; follow them! (Link)

“Where Are the Books of Job’s Daughters? Mapping the Shadow of Libraries of Antiquity” by Eva Mroczek; in Zoomland, of course, on November 18, 7 p.m. to 8:15 p.m. (Link)

“The Story of Sacrifice: New Directions in the Study of the Priestly Source,” a panel discussion of Liane Feldman’s book called, well, The Story of Sacrifice: Ritual and Narrative in the Priestly Source; November 13, 10:30 a.m. to 12:00 p.m. (EST) (Link)

Misc Links and Articles

“The Book of Jonah and the Theme of Exile” by Marian Kelsey (Link)

“Ancient Muses and Student Poets: Storytelling in Verse” by Erin Galgay Walsh (Link)

“What are ᵓElilim?” by Mark Hamilton (Link)

Mark Hamilton explores the word ᵓĕlîlîm.

“The Conflict between Adonijah and Solomon in Light of Succession Practices Near and Far” by Andrew Knapp (Link)

“La Lingua Americana: Voice and Representation in Academic Publishing” by Ella Maria Diaz (Link)

“Rahab: Between Faith and Works” by Jacob Wright (Link)

Report of the Select Committee on Intelligence by the US Senate (Link)

Andrea Seri’s review of Ea’s Duplicity in the Gilgamesh Flood Story by Martin Worthington (Link)

“Discerning False Prophecy: The Story of Ahab and the Lying Spirit” by James A. Diamond (Link)

“Steve A. Wiggins (Oxford University Press): The Editors behind the Great Books in New Testament Studies” by Nijay Gupta (Link)

“Thinking Materially: Making Ostraca in the Classroom” by Patrick Angiolillo (Link)

“The Fascination, Challenges, and Joys of Being a Historian of Ancient Israelite Religion” by Theodore Lewis (Link)

Review of Inventing the Novel: Bakhtin and Petronius Face to Face by Robert Bracht Branham, written by Thomás Fernández (Link)

“Looters Destroy 2000-Year-Old Sudan Archaeological Side in Search for Gold” by The New Arab Staff and Agencies (Link)

“New Sept Volume on Leviticus: An Interview with Mark Awabdy” by William Ross (Link)

“No more office hours! We need student hours” by an individual on Twitter (Link)

An Educator’s Handbook for Teaching about the Ancient World (vol. 1), edited by Pınar Durgun (Link)

“Some Reflections on Ariel Sabar’s Veritas” by Tony Burke (Link)

Beit Mikra – Volume 65 (2020), No. 1 (Link)

“Aural Epistemology: Hearing and Listening in the Text of the Qur’an” by Lauren E. Osborne (Link)

“Feminist Historiography and Uses of the Past” by Blossom Stefaniw (Link)

Twitter Thread by Seth Sanders (Link)

“Epidemics in Mesopotamia” by Annie Attia (Link)

“Michel Foucault – The Dynamics of Power ” by James Bishop (Link)

“Mishnah, Midrash, and How to Read Tannaitic Literature” by Ishay Rosen-Zvi (Link)

“Introduction to the Masorah: The Masorah of the Leningrad Codex in the Biblia Hebraica Stuttgartensia (BHS) Edition” by Daniel Mynatt (Link)

“Imagining History without Heroes and Villains” by Russell P. Johnson (Link)

Vasileios Liotsakis’s review of Narratology: Classics in Theory by Genevieve Liveley (Link)

“The Idea and Study of Sacrifice in Ancient Israel” by Liana Feldman, an article oriented toward undergraduates, if I recall the Twitter post correctly (Link)

Metatron, a new journal from the group Renewed Philology (Link)

Books

The Synagogue in Ancient Palestine: Current Issues and Emerging Trends edited by Rick Bonnie et al.

The Amarna Letters: Transliterations, Translations, and Glossary of the International and Vassal Correspondence from Tell el-Amarna by Jacob Lauinger and Tyler Yoder (Link)

After the Harvest: Storage Practices and Food Processing in Bronze Age Mesopotamia edited by Noemi Borrelli and Guilia Scazzosi (Link)

Painting the Mediterranean Phoenician: On Canaanite-Phoenician Trade-nets by Dalit Regev (Link)

The Ancient South Arabian Royal Edicts from the Southern Gate of Timna and the Gabal Labah by Giovanni Mazzini (Link)

Building between the Two Rivers: An Introduction to the Building Archaeology of Ancient Mesopotamia by Stefano Anastasio and Piero Gilento (Link)

Identity in Persian Egypt: The Fate of the Yehudite Community of Elaphantine by Bob Becking (Link)

Reading Other Peoples’ Texts: Social Identity and the Reception of Authoritative Tradition edited by Ken S. Brown, Alison L. Joseph, and Brennan Breed (Link)

The Oxford History of the Ancient Near East: From the Beginnings to Old Kingdom Egypt and the Dynasty of Akkad (Vol.1), edited by Karen Radner, Nadine Moeller, and D. T. Potts (Link)

Ezekiel, Law, and Judahite Identity: A Case for Identity in Ezekiel 1–33 by Joel B. Kemp (Link)

Semitic, Biblical and Jewish Studies: In Honor of Richard C. Steiner, edited by Aron J. Koller, Mordechai Z. Cohen, and Adina Moshavi (Link)

Tales of Royalty: Notions of Kingship in Visual and Textual Narration in the Ancient Near East, edited by Elisabeth Wagner-Durand and Julia Linke (Link)

Essays on Babylonian and Biblical Literature and Religion by Tzvi Abusch (Link)

On My Right Michael, On My Left Gabriel: Angels in Ancient Jewish Culture by Mika Ahuvia (Link)

Contextualizing Jewish Temples, edited by Tova Ganzel and Shalom E. Holtz (Link)

Hebräisch: Biblisch-Hebräische Unterrichtsgrammatik by Michael Pietsch and Martin Rösel (Link)

God’s Law and Order: The Politics of Punishment in Evangelical America by Aaron Griffith (Link)

The Jewish Annotated Bibliography edited by Jonathan Klawans and Lawrence M. Wills (Link)

Three Skeptics and the Bible: La Peyrère, Hobbes, Spinoza, and the Reception of Modern Biblical Criticism by Jeffrey Morrow (Link) [Mainly included for my own interests]

The “God of Israel” in History and Tradition by Michael J. Stahl (Link)

Roundup of Forthcoming (and Recently Released) Books

The last few months have been pretty busy. As such, I haven’t had much opportunity to write for The Biblical Review. One of the unforeseen consequences is that I haven’t been tracking forthcoming and recently released books. In this post, then, I offer a list of various volumes. For each volume, I include the subject matter along with why I am interested in the book. (Please forgive any typographical errors.)

Authoritative Writings in Early Judaism and Early Christianity: Their Origin, Collection, and Meaning, edited by Tobias Nicklas and Jens Schröter. (Link)

“The articles in this collection start with the assumption that the authorization of writings had already begun in Israel and Judaism before the emergence of Christianity and was continued in the first centuries CE by Judaism and Christianity in their respective ways. They deal with a broad range of sources, such as writings which came to be part of the Hebrew Bible, literature from Qumran, the Septuagint, or early Jewish apocalypses. At the same time they deal, for example, with structures of authorization related to New Testament writings, examine the role of authoritative texts in so-called Gnostic schools, and discuss the authority of late antique apocryphal literature.”

Although I am not particularly interested in the New Testament, I am always interested in the notion of authoritative writings and how texts became authoritative.

Un YHWH venant du Sud? by Fabian Pfitzmann. (Link)

Though I have not dealt with much scholar about Yahweh from the south, I interested in perusing this book, as it may contain some helpful summaries about the current state of scholarship on this subject.

Sovereign Authority and the Elaboration of Law in the Bible and the Ancient Near East, by Dylan Johnson. (Link)

“Five Pentateuchal texts (Lev 24:10–23; Num 9:6–14; Num 15:32–36; Num 27:1–11; Num 36:1–12) offer unique visions of the elaboration of law in Israel’s formative past. In response to individual legal cases, Yahweh enacts impersonal and general statutes reminiscent of biblical and ancient Near Eastern law collections. From the perspective of comparative law, Dylan R. Johnson proposes a new understanding of these texts as biblical rescripts: a legislative technique that enabled sovereigns to enact general laws on the basis of particular legal cases. Typological parallels drawn from cuneiform and Roman law illustrate the complex ideology informing the content and the form of these five cases. The author explores how latent conceptions of law, justice, and legislative sovereignty shaped these texts, and how the Priestly vision of law interacted with and transformed earlier legal traditions.”

Like some of the other books, I’m not interested in reading this; however, I am interested in reading some thorough book reviews and getting a sense of Johnson’s contributions and arguments.

The Pillars of the First Temple (1 Kgs 7,15–22): A Study from Ancient Near Eastern, Biblical, Archaeological, and Iconographic Perspectives, by Daniel Prokop. (Link)

“The columns referred to as Jachin and Boaz are certainly one of the most controversial features of the First Temple of Jerusalem. In this volume, Daniel Prokop examines the appearance and the meaning of the twin pillars by approaching them from different perspectives. He investigates the epigraphic evidence from Egypt, Mesopotamia, and Syria-Palestine, defines the relationship between the six different descriptions in the Hebrew Bible, and compares the most important textual witnesses of 1 Kgs 7,15–22, which will provide insight into the narrative development and transmission history of the texts. Studying iconographic data, the author explores a unique way to achieve a better understanding of the material, dimensions, names, location, and decoration of the pillars.”

Dealing with epigraphic and iconographic data in any study can be fruitful, illuminating ambiguous passages in the Hebrew Bible. As such, I am interested not just in how Prokop uses such data but also how he analyzes each data point independent of 1 Kings 7:5–22.

Researching Metaphor in the Ancient Near East, edited by Marta Pallavidini and Ludovico Portuese. (Link)

“This volume edited by Marta Pallavidini and Ludovico Portuese aims to research metaphor from different perspectives by considering its presence in ancient Near Eastern written documents. The contributions focus on several ancient Near Eastern cultures and encompass more than two millennia as well as examine various topics, from Sumerian literature, to Hittite written sources, to Neo-Assyrian art to the Biblical world.”

Simply put, metaphors are important to understand and analyze, as most language is metaphor. As such, the chronological and geographical span of this volume may be extraordinarily helpful for thinking about metaphor.

Writing World History in Late Ming China and the Perception of Maritime Asia, by Elke Papelitzky. (Link)

“This book by Elke Papelitzky studies each of the seven author’s knowledge and perception of the world and focuses especially on the countries connected with China at the maritime border: Siam, Malacca, and Portugal, combining a close textual and paratextual analysis with a biographical study to understand why the authors wrote the texts the way they did. This is the first comprehensive introduction to these texts contributing to an understanding of late Ming historiography as well as the perception of foreign countries by late Ming scholars.”

Although I am not particularly interested int he details of late Ming scholars, I am interested in some of the broader historiographical patterns that Papelitzky identifies, as they may prove to be interesting comparisons to Near Eastern and biblical texts.

The Crimean Karaim Bible, edited by Henryk Jankowski et al. (Link)

“The Bible was the most important canonical book of the Karaites, but only short fragments or individual books have been published. The present two-volume publication is a critical edition of approximately a half of Crimean Karaim Bible. Volume I contains the transcription of sixteen biblical books, the Pentateuch, i.e., Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy; the Five Scrolls, i.e., the Song of Songs, Ruth, Lamentations, and Ecclesiastes; as well as six books of the Writings, i.e., the Psalms, Proverbs, Job, Daniel, Ezra, and Nehemiah. Volume II contains the English translation of all biblical books provided in volume I. The transcription is based on the most complete manuscript from Cambridge and a few other manuscripts, including the earliest ones. Therefore, this is the first publication that makes large portions of the Bible accessible to the reader. Although the oldest known datable manuscripts go back to the seventeenth century, the language of Karaim translation is more archaic. This edition is an important source for the study of Middle Karaim and Middle Turkic languages. The edited text is provided with numerous comments and the introduction traces the history of research. All this is important for the study on the Crimean Karaim Bible since Ebenezer Henderson’s seminal study of 1828.”

These volume consists of what is seemingly an understudied portion of Jewish history as well as biblical manuscripts. As a whole, using this volume as a reference may yield some important divergences between it and other manuscripts.

Writing and Rewriting History in Ancient Israel and Near Eastern Cultures, edited by Isaac Kalimi. (Link)

“Most of the papers collected in this volume were delivered at the conference held in June 2018, Mainz. They discuss recent developments in the analysis of history and historiography in ancient Israel and its surrounding cultures. The scholars compare the compositional and editorial approaches evident in biblical and post-biblical writings with those shown in other ancient literature, while concentrating on a specific theme.”

On issues of historiography, especially when it is related to religious studies issues, I suspect this volume may offer a helpful over of a multitude of debates and discourse about the Hebrew Bible, such as the relationship between Ezekiel 16 and Gilgamesh, the Queen of Heaven, and broader methodological discussion about historiography and the bible.

Building in Assyria: A Philological Perspective, by Johanna Tudea. (Link)

“Johanna Tudeau offers with this book a sketch of the practice and ideology of building in Assyria based on textual evidence. The study focuses on the Assyrian royal inscriptions and state archives, two of the most comprehensive textual corpora available on the topic. The temporal and spatial framework is necessarily broad, from the rise to the fall of Assyria, from one end of the empire to the other. This stands in contrast with a targeted terminological approach: architectural keywords structure the chapters and these follow the stages of the building process. The findings come together in a chapter devoted to the modern significance of ancient realities, where grounds for the investigation and interpretation of space are proposed to serve philologists and archaeologists alike, hopefully facilitating the exchange between disciplines.”

This volume looks interesting for two reasons. First, considering the intensity of debates about the Hebrew Bible, history, material culture, and archaeology, the book may serve as a guide book for folks engaged in biblical studies. Second, with portions Ezekiel, Numbers, and Leviticus spend so much time describing physical structures, in will be interesting to Tudea’s conclusions about building in Assyria based on textual evidence.

Between Temple and TombThe Demotic Ritual Texts of Bodl. MS. Egypt. a. 3(P), by Mark Smith. (Link)

“The ritual texts edited in this volume offer an excellent opportunity to explore these and related issues. Most of them are known to have been employed both for the benefit of the god Osiris and for ordinary deceased people, in certain cases, during one and the same period of Egypt’s history. This is one of their most interesting and striking features. They stand at the interface between temple cult and cult of the dead and allow us to trace the transmission of beliefs and practices from one sphere to the other.”

From my experience, folks frequently ignore Demotic texts. That said, ritual text about death rituals, the Osirian temple cult, private funerary cults, and their fluidity sounds interesting and fun. Plus, there is quite a bit of work in biblical studies on material culture, death, and the Hebrew Bible. As such, this volume may have some interesting nuggets of information.

Legal Documents in Ancient Societies: Accounts and Bookkeeping in the Ancient World, by Andrea Jördens and Uri Yiftach. (Link)

“The volume is dedicated to an early and seemingly ubiquitous type of text, which often followed certain classification criteria and which, for the sake of easier clarity, was gladly subjected to a specially developed layout. In addition to the discussions of individual artefacts or artefact groups as well as literary texts, there are considerations of ancient and modern terminology, the choice of writing media used for this purpose, the bodies entrusted with data collection, the purposes pursued with it, the further processing and archiving of the collected data as well as their organisation at the various levels of administration.”

This volume contains a wide range of content. With so little evidence for Israelite/Judean scribal and bookkeeping practices, it could serve as an interesting point of comparison with biblical texts. Likewise, it just looks interesting.

Yahweh before IsraelGlimpses of History in a Divine Name, by Daniel Fleming. (Link)

While the book has no description yet, the content sounds intriguing, at least based on the title.

Divine Aggression in Psalms and Inscriptions: Vengeful Gods and Loyal Kings, by Collin Cornell. (Link)

“The aggression of the biblical God named Yhwh is notorious. Students of theology, the Bible, and the Ancient Near East know that the Hebrew Bible describes Yhwh acting destructively against his client country, Israel, and against its kings. But is Yhwh uniquely vengeful, or was he just one among other, similarly ferocious patron gods? To answer this question, Collin Cornell compares royal biblical psalms with memorial inscriptions. He finds that the Bible shares deep theological and literary commonalities with comparable texts from Israel’s ancient neighbours. The centrepiece of both traditions is the intense mutual loyalty of gods and kings. In the event that the king’s monument and legacy comes to harm, gods avenge their individual royal protégé. In the face of political inexpedience, kings honour their individual divine benefactor.”

I am particularly interested in seeing how Cornell draws together memorial inscriptions and biblical psalms, especially in light of recent research on funerary inscriptions.

The Fundamentals of Hebrew Accents: Divisions and Exegetical Roles beyond Syntax, by Sung Jin Park. (Link)

“This book is designed to serve as a textbook for intermediate Hebrew students and above. Sung Jin Park presents the fundamental features of the Tiberian Hebrew accents, focusing on their divisions and exegetical roles. Providing innovative methods for diagramming biblical texts, the volume explores the two major rules (hierarchy and dichotomy) of disjunctive accents. Students will also attain biblical insights from the exegetical application of the biblical texts that Hebrew syntax alone does not provide. Park’s volume shows how the new perspectives on Hebrew accents enhance our understanding of biblical texts.”

As Tiberian Hebrew accents weren’t discussed extensively in my training, I am interested, generally, in what Sung Jin Park will bring to the table.

Genres of Rewriting in Second Temple Judaism: Scribal Composition and Transmission, by Molly M. Zahn. (Link)

d“In this book, Molly Zahn investigates how early Jewish scribes rewrote their authoritative traditions in the course of transmitting them, from minor edits in the course of copying to whole new compositions based on prior works. Scholars have detected evidence for rewriting in a wide variety of textual contexts, but Zahn’s is the first book to map manuscripts and translations of biblical books, so-called ‘parabiblical’ compositions, and the sectarian literature from Qumran in relation to one another. She introduces a new, adaptable set of terms for talking about rewriting, using the idea of genre as a tool to compare and contrast different cases. Although rewriting has generally been understood as a vehicle for biblical interpretation, Zahn moves beyond that framework to demonstrate that rewriting was a pervasive textual strategy in the Second Temple period. Her book contributes to a powerful new model of early Jewish textuality, illuminating the rich and diverse culture out of which both rabbinic Judaism and early Christianity eventually emerged.”

Simply put, I am interested in seeing what Zahn offers, especially in light books like Eva Mroczek’s The Literary Imagination in Jewish Antiqutiy, which, while I haven’t had the opportunity, I look forward to reading.

The Egyptian Priests of the Graeco-Roman Period: An Analysis of the Basis of the Egyptian and Graeco-Roman Literary and Paraliterary Sources, by Marina Escolano-Poveda. (Link)

“Marina Escolano-Poveda offers for the first time a detailed analysis of the most relevant Egyptian priestly characters from Egyptian and Graeco-Roman literary and paraliterary sources. The examination of these sources contrasts the self-presentation of Egyptian priests in texts created and circulated within the temple environment with images presented by outside sources, providing a solid base to analyze how these figures were seen in their historical milieu. In the second part of the book, the results of the previous analysis are contrasted with a series of widely-used models employed to understand the historical and intellectual context of Egyptian religion and the Egyptian priesthood in the Graeco-Roman period, questioning the usefulness and applicability of such models.”

I am interested in this book for two reasons. First, I would like to understand better Egyptian religion of the 1st millennium. Second, I am generally interested in priestly construction during this period on account of Judeans, or whatever we want to call them, living in Egypt.

Judging Faith, Punish Sin: Inquisitions and Consistories in the Early Modern World, edited by Charles H. Parker and Gretchen Starr-LeBeau. (Link)

“Rooted in local archives and addressing specific themes, the essays survey the state of scholarship and chart directions for future inquiry and, taken as a whole, demonstrate the unique convergence of penitential practice, legal innovation, church authority, and state power, and how these forces transformed Christianity.”

While outside the boundaries of Judaism and Hebrew Bible proper, I have been interested in the notion of so-called sin as of late. So, I am interested in see what this volume contributes in terms of construction of sin/social transgression in the early modern world.

Demons, Angels, and Writing in Ancient Judaism, by Annette Yoshiko Reed. (Link)

I wont’ even include the description here because I have heard nothing but good things about Reed’s work. I look forward to reading it!

God’s Law and Order: The Politics of Punishment in Evangelical America, by Aaron Griffith. (Link)

“America incarcerates on a massive scale. Despite recent reforms, the United States locks up large numbers of people—disproportionately poor and nonwhite—for long periods and offers little opportunity for restoration. Aaron Griffith reveals a key component in the origins of American mass incarceration: evangelical Christianity.”

To criticize and reflect on our interpretations of sin in the Hebrew Bible, it is necessary to recognize the history of how the US Christianity, namely, evangelical Christianity, constructed, fought for, and established norms for social transgressions.

The Origins of the Bible in Early Modern Political Thought: Revelation and the Boundaries of Scripture, by Travis DeCook. (Link)

“Travis DeCook explores the theological and political innovations found in early modern accounts of the Bible’s origins. In the charged climate produced by the Reformation and humanist historicism, writers grappled with the tension between the Bible’s divine and human aspects, and they produced innovative narratives regarding the agencies and processes through which the Bible came into existence and was transmitted. DeCook investigates how these accounts of Scripture’s production were taken up beyond the expected boundaries of biblical study, and were redeployed as the theological basis for wide-reaching arguments about the proper ordering of human life.”

The Reformation, the Bible’s divine origins, and humanity? This sounds great to me. It also contributes (likely) to understand early discourse about biblical authority that shaped the field of biblical studies. Perhaps. We’ll have to see.

Reconstructing the Temple: The Royal Rhetoric of Temple Renovation in the Ancient Near East and Israel, by Andrew R. Davis. (Link)

Though this book has been out for a while, I remain interested in reading it.

A History of Death in the Hebrew Bible, by Matthew Suriano. (Link)

Like the previous book, this has been out for a while. Perhaps I will finally be able to read it in the next few months!

The Emergence of Sin: Cosmic Tyrant in Romans, by Matthew Croasmun. (Link)

With my current interest in sin, this volume looks particularly interesting, especially as the description says that sin is “an emergent feature of a vast human network of transgression.” I have no idea what to expect. Also, it is a few years old. Even so, I am interested.

Philo of Alexandria: On the Contemplative Life; Introduction, Translation and Commentary, by Joan E. Taylor and David M. Hay. (Link)

It’s always good to familiarize myself with classics, especially when they include new commentary and an updated bibliography.

Isaiah, Septuagint Commentary Series, by Ken Penner. (Link)

This commentary, introduction, and translation may be helpful for me when I write my review of Roberts’s commentary on First Isaiah.

Three Hundred Years of Death: The Egyptian Funerary Industry in the Ptolematic Empire, by Maria Cannata. (Link)

“Maria Cannata provides a detailed survey of the organisation of the necropolises and the funerary workers, as well as their role in the practical aspects of the mummification, funeral, burial, and mortuary cult of the deceased, in Ptolemaic Egypt (332-30 BC). The author gathers together and synthesises hundreds of the original textual sources, as well as the relevant archaeological sources, on the organisation of the funerary industry and its practitioners, revealing important regional and chronological variations overlooked in studies focusing on a limited geographical area, a shorter timeframe, or a smaller group of documents.”

As I already noted, death and funerals is a hot topic these days. This may yield some interesting nuggets of information.

The Meaning of Color in Ancient Mesopotamia, by Shiyanthi Thavapalan. (Link)

“Shiyanthi Thavapalan offers the first in-depth study of the words and expressions for colors in the Akkadian language (c. 2500-500 BCE). By combining philological analysis with the technical investigation of materials, she debunks the misconception that people in Mesopotamia had a limited sense of color and positions the development of Akkadian color language as a corollary of the history of materials and techniques in the ancient Near East.”

Colors are important in biblical texts, such as Leviticus, Exodus, and Isaiah 1. So, some insight on color would be nice.

The Expression of Emotions in Ancient Egypt and Mesopotamia, edited by Shih-Wei Hsu and Jaume Llop Raduà. (Link)

The content in this book could be useful for comparison with biblical and Jewish texts.