Review: “Before and after Babel: Writing as Resistance in Ancient Near Eastern Empires” by Marc Van De Mieroop

Marc Van De Mieroop. Before and after Babel: Writing as Resistance in Ancient Near Eastern Empires. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2023. 360 pp.


In Before and After Babel: Writing as Resistance in Ancient Near Eastern Empires, Marc Van De Mieroop uses Sheldon Pollock’s cosmopolitan-vernacular model of language to consider language and writing in the ancient Near East. In the second millennium BCE, Van De Mieroop argues Babylonian functioned as the cosmopolitan language, the “language and script for their written communications” (2). While Babylonian remains a cosmopolitan language in the first millennium BCE, vernacular languages become increasingly popular alongside the cosmopolitan Babylonian language. While second-millennium interactions with the Babylonian cosmopolitan language were not focused on resistance in the same way as first-millennium interactions, both periods reflect strategies wherein scribes did not simply translate passages but “reformulated them to fit new contexts and ideologies” (4). As such, Van De Mieroop offers a approach to ancient Near Eastern writing, languages, and history with an eye to imperialism, the interplay between the cosmopolitan language and vernacular languages, and how this interplay developed.

Part I of this book focuses on Babylonian cosmopolitanism in the second millennium BCE. In Chapter One, Van De Mieroop reviews unilingual Akkadian, unilingual Sumerian, and bilingual Akkadian/Sumerian texts to show how scribes used such bilingualism to approach textual reproduction with creativity but within boundaries. In Chapter Two, he explores how various local regions incorporated Babylonian writing while, in some cases, holding on to local tradition as a conscious attempt to integrate themselves into a larger international network. In doing so, he emphasizes the ongoing, nuanced relationship between vernacular and cosmopolitan writing, between the periphery and the center. Chapter Three describes how although Babylonia’s scribal network and flourishing collapsed, scribal communities on the margins (e.g., Hittites, Sealand Dynasty, Susa, etc.) continued developing and maintaining Babylonia’s ancient scribal traditions. Chapter Four frames the use of Babylonian writing and the spread of Babylonian textual traditions as a form of second-millennium cosmopolitanism. In this environment, Babylonian traditions and writing were equally important for Babylon and those on the peripheries (e.g., Amarna, Hattushi, Emar, etc.). what Vav De Mieroop makes clear, though, is that even as each region tapped into this cosmopolitan language and tradition, local scribes modified traditions for their local culture. As such, he suggests “works of Babylonian literature became works of world literature. A Babylonian text never had such authority that it could not be altered” (101).

Part II of this book focuses on the increase in vernacular languages in relation to the Babylonian cosmopolitan languages and explores various aspects of this relationship. Before focusing on the vernacular languages and their interactions with the Babylonian cosmopolitan language, Chapter Five makes clear the Babylonian intellectuals worked to preserve their traditions through scrupulous continuity. Chapter Six considers Luwian’s ephemeral success as a vernacular language and it interacted with the cosmopolitan language. Similarly, Chapter Seven considers how Phoenician and Aramaic grew and came to interact with Babylonian. Chapter Eight takes a similar approach for Hebrew. What he highlights for Chapters Six through Nine, though, is how each vernacular developed apart from and simultaneously in relation to the Babylonian cosmopolitan language. In particular, each chapter highlights how the vernacular languages write in resistance to the cosmopolitan language. Chapter Ten brings these ideas together to suggest that the switch to an alphabetic system instead of cuneiform played a significant role in shifting how people wrote and understood texts/traditions, as alphabets could not be interpreted in the same way as cuneiform’s polyvalent signs. Thus, scholarship and intellectual traditions were “uncoupled from writing” (239), from script. The epilogue briefly considers how Greek overtook Babylonian as the cosmopolitan language and tradition.


Overall, Van De Mieroop synthesizes and compiles a range of topics, regions, and fields of study into a single, accessible monograph. In doing so, he has constructed a history of writing, scripts, vernaculars, and cosmopolitan languages in the ancient Near East. Undoubtedly, this volume can be a helpful starting point for a general audience and students. And, indeed, Assyriologists and biblical scholars may find small nuggets throughout his work. Even so, the monograph offer no particularly striking or ground-breaking analysis that will significantly impact Assyriology, biblical scholarship, or other adjacent fields. In fact, many will find themselves disagreeing with Van De Mieroop as they read this monograph. (The margins in my copy are certainly filled with comments, disagreements, question marks, and exclamation points!). Nonetheless, I want to reiterate that this monograph is an excellent starting point for familiarizing oneself with the history of writing in the ancient Near East.

In the following sections, I detail some my disagreements (based on my current research focus).

Distributed Libraries and Eleanor Robson

As of June 2023, I am preparing an SBL paper that explains the Pentateuch’s citational inexactitude via what Eleanor Robson characterizes as distributed libraries and ancient knowledge networks in the ancient Near East. In reading her Ancient Knowledge Networks: A Social Geography of Cuneiform Scholarship in First-Millennium Assyria and Babylonia, she comments that scholars tend to provide broad, generalist histories of cuneiform scholarship that do not account for local variations (p. 10). In particular, she highlights that Van De Mieroop’s Philosophy before the Greeks (2015) downplays “the historical, social, geographical, political and contingent in favour of overarching grand synthesis” (p. 43n1). Although Van De Mieroop indeed focuses on a grand, overarching synthesis in Before and after Babel, he adequately addresses some of Robson’s concerns. Throughout the volume, he attempts to account for the local variations in relation to the Babylonian cosmopolitan. Thus, Van De Mieroop has begun to address these matters, contrary to Robson’s comment.

That said, Van De Mieroop could take this a step further. (And perhaps others ought to do so!) For instance, Chapter Five’s discussion on Babylonian scholars’ scrupulous continuity invokes various libraries to ascertain how Babylonian scholars in the first millennium engaged with their traditions from the second millennium, broadly speaking. To strengthen his work, Van De Mieroop should not have solely considered Babylonian scholars in the first millennium as part of an overall synthesis; rather, he should have considered how the various so-called libraries each reflect distinct practices and patterns. Such an analysis would have resulted in a more nuanced understanding of first-millennium cosmopolitanism, scribes relationship with royalty and temple institutions constantly shifted, not to mention the frequently moving capital cities! In accounting for such matters, he might have been able to more effectively nuance Babylonian cosmopolitanism in the first millennium. Worth consideration, for instance, is that institutions and knowledge networks meant to secure and reinforce the Babylonian cosmopolitan may have unintentionally destabilized Babylonian’s cosmopolitan centrality. That is, shifting the capital multiple times, removing cuneiform tablets from the peripheries to bring them into the center, general political instability, and changing ideas about Babylonian scholarship may have contributed to its downfall. Ironically, these sort of actions may have been intended to reinforce the tradition. This example is but one of how more consideration of local variations could have improved Van De Mieroop’s analysis.

Writing as Resistance

Whether in biblical studies, religious studies, Assyriology, or adjacent fields, writing as resistance is a common idea. And Van De Mieroop rightly brings these fields together to construct an overarching narrative. In his words, “I have tried to accentuate the agency of vernacular authors and emphasized that they reacted to the cosmopolitan. Instead of merely receiving ideas, they actively appropriated them and manipulated them as acts of contestation” (225). Indeed, he is right to emphasize that vernacular authors reacted to the cosmopolitan and had agency. However, Van De Mieroop’s claim is overstated and does not adequately account for acts of writing that were not a form of resistance. While I don’t necessarily have the time or capacity to provide details or analysis in this vein in order to highlight why his claim is overstated, I can instead highlight the danger of simply claiming that writing is an act of contestation.

First, this claim fundamentally reinforces the idea that vernaculars gain all their knowledge from an external source and thus ironically implies they do not have agency, the ability to write and create in a way not entirely dependent on others. I do not think Van De Mieroop is arguing for this point, to be clear; however, he concludes with a broad point that could easily be taken in that way. As such, his central claim should have been more refined to prevent others from misunderstanding his text as seuch.

Second, specialists will likely disagree with the claim that writing is necessarily an act of contestation. Jeffrey Stackert’s recent monograph on D, for example, argues that D uses Esharddon’s Succession Treaty not to be subversive but simply for its own literary aims. Thus, Van De Mieroop’s broad claim is at odds with a Pentateuchal scholar’s recent detailed analysis. Undoubtedly, others have put forward similar arguments that certain texts are not about contestation or subversion but rather have different aims. Therefore, folks reading this book, whether as a general audience, student, or scholar, must engage with the specialists that Van De Mieroop works to synthesize, lest all a reader gains from the volume is an overly simplistic notion of how the vernacular relates to the cosmopolitan language.


Review: “Deuteronomy and the Pentateuch” by Jeffrey Stackert

Jeffrey Stackert. Deuteronomy and the Pentateuch. Anchor Yale Bible Reference Library. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2022.

In Deuteronomy and the Pentateuch, one of Yale University Press’s recent additions to The Anchor Yale Bible Reference Library, Jeffrey Stackert evaluates Deuteronomy’s status in the Pentateuch. Through the volume, he effectively synthesizes a broad range of scholarship into a single, cohesive discussion, developing various arguments throughout.

In the introduction, Stackert identifies the book’s goal: to disentangle the complex scholarly picture in order to create a clear picture and make claims in relation to this picture. Additionally, Stackert makes explicit his framework (Neodocumentarian and distinguishing literature vs. scripture). This framework ties into one of his foundational claims: “I argue that even as the Pentateuchal sources individually carry the hallmarks of literature, the compiled Pentateuch does not” (12). As such, Deuteronomy and the Pentateuch is a thesis-driven book; however, he counterbalances this thesis-driven aspect with a pedagogical goal: “While meant as a monograph, then, the volume also bears some features of a handbook” (2).

In Chapter 1, Stackert asks a deceptively simple question: what is Deuteronomy? With goals of precision, he first distinguishes between the scroll/book of Deuteronomy (i.e., Deuteronomy as part of the Pentateuch) and D (i.e., a separate literary work). Breaking down D further, Stackert considers four elements indicating D’s compositeness (structural duplication; content duplication; content contradiction [plot and law], and style/thematic differences [discontinuity]), but he still views D as a single literary work. Next, he argues that D is literary and that the Deuteronomy scroll is not literary, justifying this claim through Benjamin Harshav’s concept of an internal field of reference (IFR). Finally, he examines the legal and nonlegal sections in D to argue that D’s IFR is self-sustaining and does not require reading the text’s speaker as addressing the reader or a seventh-century Judean audience, as such approaches risk becoming allegorical interpretations based on the book of Deuteronomy as scripture rather than D as literature.

In Chapter 2, Stackert shows how and why D is a literary, revisionary work as well as the implication for D’s nature as part of the Pentateuch. First, he reviews major aspects of D’s literary revision, especially of E: reusing legal material, narrative in legislation, and nonlegal texts. He pays special attention to Deut 1–2, which interpolates elements of J, E, and P, and to the removal of a generation change in Deuteronomy. Subsequently, he reviews the three dominant theories on why D revised its forebearers: the subversion theory, supplementation theory, and resuscitation theory. Of these, he suggests the resuscitation theory “offers the most persuasive account of the evidence of D’s revisionary method” (84).

In Chapter 3 Stackert considers the ancient Near Eastern influence on Deuteronomy based on Hittite treaties, Esarhaddon’s succession treaty (EST), and other ancient Near Eastern treaties. First, though D and Hittite treaties have some overlap, Stackert forcefully argues that “claims of the influence of Hittite texts upon biblical texts should be rejected” (94).  Second, he highlights how EST relates to D. After reviewing scholarship and demonstrating connections between EST and D, he briefly turns to other first-millennium Mesopotamian and Levantine theories. While admitting similarities, he rejects arguments that D drew from these particular texts. Finally, he considers the nature of D’s revision of EST. Here, he makes three major claims: D does not reuse EST subversively but rather uses it because the text fits within its own literary aims; based on various evidence, including the paucity thereof, we do not need to assume an Aramaic copy of EST; and D’s use of EST should be viewed as creative adaptation, not a translation.

In Chapter 4, Stackert analyzes D’s reception as the D source and the Deuteronomic scroll. First, he shows how Jer 7:22–23 and other related Jeremian texts draw from an independent D. While he primarily draws from Nathan Mastnjak’s work, Stackert provides other links between Jeremiah and D to show how Jeremiah harmonizes D to fit within its own historical and theological aims. Second, Stackert considers how H draws from and integrates D’s tithing laws in order to challenge D and prioritize P’s storyline over D’s storyline. Finally, Stackert considers how Chronicles, Nehemiah 9, the Temple Scroll, and 4QMMT incorporate the Deuteronomy scroll (i.e., in a compiled state). Each example shows a unique way scribes transformed and harmonized D and the Deuteronomy scroll.

Based on the evidence discussed in chapters 1 through 4, chapter 5 discusses a plausible “time window for situating [D’s] composition” (135). Initially, he reviews the general dating options: the reign of Josiah, the reign of Manasseh, and the exilic/postexilic period. On the basis of D’s use of E, the Covenant Code, and Est, as well as H’s use of D, Stackert argues for a seventh-century dating. He then specifies his dating to the first half of the seventh century, and perhaps even the end of the first third of the seventh century, based on archaeology, the distribution of EST and how/when Assyrian leaders wrote adê texts, Judean access to EST, and the general political trajectory of the Assyria in the seventh century.

Overall, Deuteronomy and the Pentateuch is a fantastic addition to The Yale Bible Reference Library. Stackert deftly weaves a coherent, cogent scholarship review with well-reasoned critiques and arguments. Undoubtedly, his work will be a touchstone for scholarship on Deuteronomy, D, and the Pentateuch as a whole. Moreover, I can see this book becoming a standard in graduate-level coursework and reading lists.

Throughout this work, though, I continually returned to a consistent problem: how Stackert frames D as literature (as opposed to real legislation or law) and the theory he invokes to justify his claim. That is, how Stackert develops his argument for D as literature (not as law) and Deuteronomy as Scripture relies on tenuous, highly contestable claims and assumptions.

Before noting precisely how Stackert justifies his claim of D as literature, it is worth noting a more positive aspect of how he defines D as literature. Rather than forcing D into a literature frame ill-equipped to handle the text, Stackert’s theoretical framing of D appears to be an outgrowth of his broader observations regarding D and the Pentateuch. That is, he initially brackets off portions of the Deuteronomy Scroll as not D based on a source-critical reading, thereby leaving him with D. Subsequently, he reviews various factors indicative of D’s composite nature. Only after articulating these two aspects does Stackert argue that D is literature on the basis of a consistent internal frame of reference. Here, Stackert’s theoretical framing closely parallels his source-critical approach and explanation of D’s composite nature. As such, his theoretical framing of D as literature appears to be an outgrowth of his observations regarding D. At face value, allowing the text (D) to speak and lead to a theoretical formulation (Harshav) reflects a nuanced, thoughtful approach to the material.

However, this approach also raises red flags: To what extent does Stackert use Harshav’s definition and understanding of literature because that method and framework match a source-critical approach? Although the book’s flow suggests otherwise, is Harshav merely a convenient theoretical framework to bolster Stackert’s argument? Why does Stackert fail to engage with the much larger questions of what constitutes literature and why (e.g., Terry Eagleton’s Literary Theory) and use such questions to inform his view on D as literature? And how does framing literature in a way other than what Harshav offers impact the strength of Stackert’s argument? While all of these questions deserve answers in their own right, space and time are insufficient to address each matter. So, I briefly focus on two threads: the broader field of literary theory and assumptions on literature’s internal consistency.

First, although using Harshav is not in and of itself a problem, Stackert inadequately addresses the broad swath of literary theorists who play an important role in the history of literature, as understandings of what constitutes literature vary by time and context. As Terry Eagleton highlights in Literary Theory: An Introduction, literature in the eighteenth century meant “the whole body of valued writing in society: philosophy, history, essays and letters as well as poems” and “whether it conformed to certain standards of ‘polite letters’” (Eagleton, 17). This example is one of many that Eagleton provides, but the point is clear: literature is not a universal, all-encompassing term with a clear definition but is rather culturally contingent. Undoubtedly, Stackert would acknowledge this point in a conversation, but my concern is that he does not address such a point in Deuteronomy and the Pentateuch and therefore risks implying to readers that Harshav’s approach is somehow more scientific and legitimate than other theorists positing ideas regarding what constitutes literature and why.

Second, Harshav’s model as Stackert uses it does not account for frictions and collisions within literary texts, the fact that literature needn’t always be cohesive. Eagleton comments: “There is absolutely no need to suppose that works of literature either do or should constitute harmonious wholes, and many suggestive frictions and collisions of meaning must be blandly processed by literary criticism to induce them to do so” (Literary Theory, 81). Put another way, considering D literature based on Harshav seems somewhat arbitrary, as Stackert’s model from Harshav depends on consistency and internal coherency. Indeed, Harshav may address this issue in his Explorations in Poetics and other publications. Perhaps his work would even offer a consistent, internally coherent rebuttal to Eagleton. If so, Stackert’s work would be stronger had he incorporated more of that content into his monograph rather than asserting Harshav as the best model for identifying what constitutes literature.

Even in light of these criticisms, though, Stackert’s work should be foundational reading in any course on D, the Pentateuch, and ancient Judean literary/scribal practices. I highly recommend this volume to graduate students, researchers, and even individuals whose interests are piqued by biblical scholarship on the Hebrew Bible.

Reflections on “Bible and Poetry in Late Antique Mesopotamia” by Jeffrey Wickes

As often happens at the SBL/AAR annual meetings, book distributors occasionally give away a handful of books on the conference’s last day. In 2022, I snagged a copy of Jeffrey Wickes’ Bible and Poetry in Late Antique Mesopotamia: Ephrem’s Hymns on Faith. Although the subject area was a bit out of my wheelhouse, I nonetheless read the book in its entirety. As a life principle, I work to read every book that I own: no page is left unturned. This post, then, offers a few of my reflections on Wickes’ monograph in relation to my interests.

As a whole, Wickes’ articulates how Ephrem navigates theological debates of his time and how to read the Christian Bible. That is, Ephrem’s poetry is less exegetical and more of a creative, literary world that brings together the horizons of his theological concerns and community with allusions to Christian biblical texts. Rather than summarizing Wickes’ entire argument, I will instead focus on two aspects that are pertinent to my interests.

First, Wickes highlights that Ephrem’s poetry often pushes against any investigation, inasmuch as God is transcendent and thus cannot be investigated and debated. Rather, Ephrem advocated for a stance that theological language and discussion external to the Christian Bible was problematic. To push against the so-called investigation, Ephrem often used narratives wherein individual biblical characters or groups are investigating the divine, for as Wickes’ writes, “Ephrem’s argument is negative, forbidding investigation into the divine: as the simple cannot understand the wise, neither can the wise understand the Creator” (35). The fact that Ephrem reframes and narrates these stories of biblical characters investigating is precisely what I find interesting. In previous posts, I have identified that universal categories like sin are highly problematic and that socially transgressive actions can fall under categories other than sin. Ephrem’s Hymns on Faith and polemic against theological discussion and investigation is an excellent example: his narratives and the characters investigating are not necessarily said to have sinned, only to have committed some sort of improper social relation. We can therefore see that socially transgressive behavior in Ephrem’s Bible went beyond sin. This observation is key because we ought to consider that even texts within the Hebrew Bible might be doing the same thing at moments and that not every transgression is a sin.

Second, Wickes identifies an economic “I,” in that “Ephrem depicts his poetry as resulting from a divine-human transaction” (65). Though I will not go into the details, one consideration was strikingly absent: sin. For all the economic terminology that Ephrem uses, I would have liked to see Wickes engage with Gary Anderson’s discussion about sin as debt. For even if Ephrem’s poetry does not clearly reflect debt as sin, exploring that dimension of Ephrem’s poetry might enrich our understanding of the Hymns on Faith.  

Overall, I recommend this work for individuals interested in late-antique pedagogy and liturgy, reception history, reflecting on the nature of biblical allusions, the history of theological debates, and, of course, Ephrem’s poetry. Although this reflection was brief and only noted one area of interest and one criticism, I do not want those comments to take away from the broader value of Wickes’ scholarship. Overall, I enjoyed reading his work and have no regrets. (Trust me, I have regretted investing time and energy into books.)

Reflections on Johan Huizinga’s “Homo Ludens: A Study of the Play-Element in Culture”

After reading T. M. Luhrmann’s How God Becomes Real, I decided to follow up on her discussions about play and religion. Initially, I read Hans Vaihinger’s A Philosophy of As If in order to understand the philosophical framework that formed later discussions about religion and play. Next on this list was Johan Huizinga’s Homo Ludens: A Study of the Play-Element in Culture. Notably, this book was originally published in 1949. As such, some of Huizinga’s language and framework made me cringe, especially his frequent reference to the so-called savage and primitive. Nonetheless, this book provided some interesting ideas to chew on.

Huizinga’s central claim is simple: although not everything is named as play, play is a central element in all cultures and is formative for civilizations and societies. He demonstrates play’s role in a range of areas: contest, law, war, knowledge, poetry, philosophy, and art. In general, he offers intriguing examples of play for the respective areas, but much of his discussion is rooted in his definition of what constitutes play and how to identify play (as he discusses in chapters 1 and 2). Thus, I would have liked a more thoughtful, philosophically rooted discussion on what constitutes play. For while his definition of play is reasonable and understandable, it is almost too broad, to the point that everything starts to feel like a degree of play by the end of the book.

Still, play as a central element in culture can have value as a heuristic tool, a way to make sense of disparate data. For Huizinga, this is particularly true in his discussion of religion including a degree of play. In his words: “In play as we conceive it the distinction between belief and make-believe breaks down. The concept of play merges quite naturally with that of holiness. Any Prelude of Bach, any line of tragedy proves it” (25). This initial comment on play as merging with holiness is helpful for thinking about how religion works not because Huizinga is on to some fundamental reality; rather, his comment reflects a broader understand of how religion was conceptualized via holiness in the early twentieth century. He continues, “Primitive, or let us say, archaic ritual is thus sacred play, indispensable for the well-being of the community, fecund of cosmic insight and social development but always play in the sense Plato gave to it–an action accomplishing itself outside and above the necessities and seriousness of everyday life” (26). He later comments, “Play consecrated to the Deity, the highest goal of man’s endeavor — such was Plato’s conception of religion” (27). Whether Huizinga’s comments are true is beyond this post, but what remains key is how he uses holiness as a universal concept to redescribe religion as a form of play and to link the so-called savage/primitive with the modern person.

As Huizinga’s unversal holiness and savage-primitive language suggests, we ought to be careful when using this religion-as-play model as a heuristic tool, which Luhrmann does well. Nonetheless, I have seen some people reference Huizinga’s work for describing religion, but I’d like to see those people engage more extensively with Huizinga’s discussion when using his framework for religion.

All that said, Huizinga’s approach to play can be helpful for considering aspects of religion without invoking religious language. In particular, a religion-as-play model offers a way to consider socially transgressive acts not solely as sin but also, or instead, as breaking the rules, of being a poor sport. To utilize Huizinga, though, we need to combine his notion of rules with Luhrmann’s discussion of paracosm, the private-but-shared imagined world that religious groups live within and that makes the invisible real. First, Huizinga comments on the centrality of rules in a game: “All play has its rules. they determine what ‘holds’ in the temporary world circumscribed by play” (11). Here, Huizinga’s “temporary world” is equivalent to Luhrmann’s paracosm. Granted, the paracosm isn’t necessarily temporary; however, a paracosm might be stronger or weaker depending on the rituals and spatial circumstances. As such, a paracosm has rules by which the group must play. Continuing with Huizinga: “Indeed, as soon as the rules are transgressed the whole play-world collapses. The game is over. The umpire’s whistle breaks the spells and sets ‘real’ life going again” (11). Here, we see that breaking the rules break the game. As such, breaking the rules of a paracosm can be said to break the imagined world where the invisible can become visible. It is at this point, at the moment when one’s actions begin to splinter the paracosm’s reality, that people within the religious group might identify the transgressors actions as fundamentally bad, evil, or problematic because the individual broke the game’s rules and, thus, is contributing to the world’s collapse and illusion’s weakening power.

Transgressing the boundaries of a game’s rules, of a paracosm’s logic, can be named different things in different contexts and function with a different set of game rules: in the Hebrew Bible, חטא; in Vedic texts, énas and ā́gas (Source); in Mesopotamian rituals, māmītu and hīṭu; in US laws; etc. As such, one strength of using the play framework to discuss socially transgressive actions is that we can group similar phenomena together without leveraging the term “sin,” a word and concept deeply inflected by Western theological discourse. Moreover, even for socially transgressive rules wherein sin may be a useful concept to leverage, this framework allows us to identify different transgression gradations: in the Hebrew Bible, for example, some transgressions can be grouped into subcategories other than sin.

Reflections on David Herman’s “Storytelling and the Sciences of Mind”

When I first purchased David Herman’s Storytelling and the Sciences of Mind, I looked forward to an interdisciplinary approach to narrative, leveraging the best ideas in the humanities and sciences. As my recent thought processes went, with modern scientific capabilities, we ought to start considering what sciences of the mind can tell us about stories, their power, and more broadly, religion. Herman’s work seemed to fit the bill.

Indeed, Herman is clearly a well-informed scholar with an in-depth understanding of narratology, psychology, storytelling, the sciences of the mind, and parallel fields. Page after page, Herman’s erudite, highly technical discussion reflects this reality. However, this in-depth knowledge quickly becomes a problem. Seeing that his work aims to bridge storytelling studies (i.e., the humanities, narratology, literary analysis, etc.) with the sciences of the mind, Herman makes clear his intention to use highly technical language for all the fields he mentions. Unfortunately, his consistent use of highly technical language from disparate fields, while aiming to unite various fields with a multidisciplinary model, becomes a roadblock for scholars in either siloed field. For if you have preexisting knowledge of literary studies in the humanities, you likely do not have preexisting knowledge of the sciences of the mind. And vice verse, preexisting knowledge of the sciences of the mind likely means you don’t have preexisting knowledge of literary studies. But because Herman writes as if his reader already work in both fields, readers from both fields are unintentionally cut off from the fruits of his study.

Importantly, I am not the first to make an observation in this vein. Early in the book, Herman comments on one of his reviewer’s observations: “the reviewer criticized my book-plan on the grounds that it contained unnecessary jargon. As someone who has been teaching challenging narratological nomenclatures to students at all levels for nearly twenty years, I am sympathetic to the reviewer’s complaint. But these classroom experiences have also taught me that technical terms, when used judiciously, are absolutely crucial for particular descriptive and explanatory purposes, and for establishing a viable basis for collaborative scholarly work. Thus, . . . this book in turn uses those aspects as a basis for focused cross-disciplinary or rather ‘transdisciplinary’ dialogue” (5). Essentially, Herman wants to use the proper analytical terminology and tools. As he is to his reviewer, I am sympathetic to his comment (e.g., do not get me started on “innerbiblical exegesis” and its subsequent history or intertextuality). Nonetheless, where Herman may miss the reviewer’s point, and perhaps I am refining or reframing the reviewer’s point, is that the jargon is not necessary the problem but rather how Herman uses such jargon.

The analytical terms he employs throughout the work are undoubtedly valuable, but the book does not use such analytical tools in a well-thought, planned manner. Instead, the book reads more like a string of jargon, with little to no explanation of such jargon. And where explanations occur, he relies on other jargon. As a result, the only way to make sense of his writing is to 1) research each concept separately, 2) read each article he references in his discussions, and/or 3) read every endnote.

Such a stringing of jargon is further problematic because, as noted earlier, this book is written for two historically distinctive fields that do not currently have much overlap. As a result, scientists and humanities scholars are likely to lose track of his ideas because they are expected to understand both fields already. Had the book been written in two parts, from the perspective of scientists looking to understand literary studies and then from the perspective of literary scholars seeking to understand sciences of the mind, this issue could have been mitigated, but this is not the case.

As such, Herman unintentionally further complicates the possibility of cross-disciplinary work. For while scholars like Zunshine clearly construct a bridge from the humanities to the sciences and many references in Herman’s work construct a bridge from the sciences to the humanities, Herman seems to find a new chasm, an entirely different rift. But this rift is less transdisiplinary and more an an attempt to establish a distinct field of study altogether. While admirable, dispensing of previous field divisions as such is impractical at this time. Perhaps his work will find more of a place in the future, but now is not the time.

Reflections on “The Philosophy of ‘As If'” by Hans Vaihinger

As I explored why religion scholars often framed fandoms—or aspects of fandoms—as religion, an AAR presentation drew my attention to T. M. Luhrmann’s How God Becomes Real. In her exquisite volume, which I reviewed here, Luhrmann identifies the foundation of one of her chapters on scholarship about play. Such scholarship on play, she notes, is rooted in Han Vaihinger’s The Philosophy of ‘As If’. So, I naturally purchased Vaihinger’s work and read it to consider the extent to which is could help as a theoretical framework for thinking about the issue I raise on the outset of this paragraph.

In The Philosophy of ‘As If’, originally published in the early twentieth summary, Vaihinger explores how the logical function always function with an as-if framework and doesn’t necessarily, or often for that matter, align with reality. He derives these ideas from previous philosophers, especially Kant. This as-if framework divides any as-if claim into three categories: fiction, hypothesis, and dogma. Typically, dogma is to be avoided because little in our logical function within the psyche aligns with reality. Something is only a hypothesis when it closely and clearly aligns with reality. For the most part, though, most of what we perceive is a fiction. That is not to say, though, that perceiving something as a fiction necessarily means it is wrong; rather, something can be self-contradictory and fictional in terms of the logical function process but of value inasmuch as it is practical.

While much of Vaihinger’s work focuses on examples from the philosophy of science, his work nonetheless touches upon important themes and theories that can aid religion scholars. Regarding the ideas of a soul, god, immortality, etc., Vaihinger draws extensively from Kant, reframing much of Kant’s work to show the value of the as-if framework for explaining the logical function. For example, Part III of The Philosophy of ‘As If’ discuses—and quotes huge chunks of—various places wherein Kant more or less uses or implies the as-if framework, in which ideas are fictions that have practical value.

Now, because his work is so extensive and thorough, this post aim to highlight key findings and criticisms. In particular, I focus on putting Vaihinger’s ideas into conversation with other, more recent scholarship. Through facilitating such conversations, I hope to exemplify how leveraging and utilizing Vaihinger’s work more critically can be be beneficial to religion scholars.\

First, as I am particularly interested in ancient Israelite and Judean conceptual structures, Vaihinger’s discussion of the antithetic error is a fruitful framework for thinking through and defining ancient Israelite and Judean conceptual structures. In general, the antithetic error can be expressed as follow: “If, in fictions, thought contradicts reality,” something that Vaihinger demonstrates well and which is beyond this post’s scope, “or if it even contradicts itself, and if n spite of this questionable procure it nevertheless succeeds in corresponding to reality, then—and this is a necessary inference—this deviation must have been corrected and the contradiction must have been made good” (109). What makes this contradiction good is “an equivalent error of an opposite nature” (109), the method of antithetic error. Such a method uses what Vaihinger calls intermediate concepts, or concepts that enable a practical claim to be made but that drop out in the claim proper. After demonstrating how this method is used in mathematical equations, Vaihinger shifts toward a textual example. He write the following:

M (Man)—P (Mortal)—Man is mortal
S (Socrates)—M (Man)—Socrates is a man
S (Socrates)—P (Mortal)—Socrates is mortal

Here, Vaihinger highlights that “man” is an intermediate concept enabling the claim that Socrates is mortal; however, “as son as the result is attained the intermediate concept drops out” (121). Here, the method of antithetic error is at play inasmuch as “Socrates is mortal” is only possible because of the intermediate concept “man.”

For me, this framework raises a question in how we interpret texts: how can we, should we, do we, etc., identify whether an author’s language dropped an intermediate concept? This question carries weight in many situations of biblical interpretation. Take, for example, Psalm 29:1 (מזמור לדוד הבו ליהוה בני אלים הבו ליהוה כבוד ועז). How do we characterize the nature of the Sons of God in relation to humans? And should assumptions about humans shape assumptions about Sons of God? Vaihinger’s focus on the intermediate concept can help us articulate a possibility:

H (Humans)—G (Glory)—Humans give glory
S (Sons of God)—H (Humans)—Sons of God are like humans
S (Sons of God)—G (Glory)—Sons of God give glory

In this theoretical reconfiguration, we begin to ask now just what is evident in the text but rather what intermediate concepts dropped out in Psalm 29:1 so as to make Psalm 29:1 possible! Indeed, most introductory courses encourage this sort of approach, but Vaihinger’s method/approach is beneficial because we can visualize interpreter’s assumptions and possible intermediate concepts. Moreover, we can clearly link intermediate concepts to biblical texts when those concepts are explicitly at play. Finally, simply using the language “intermediate concept” enables scholars to more effectively articulate interpretive assumptions and claims regarding how the author constructed the text.

Second, Vaihinger’s law of ideational shifts is an alternative, philosophically grounded way to express Luhrmann’s faith frame, not to mention other adjacent concepts in her work. Vaihinger’s law of ideational shifts is straightforward: “it is to the effect that a number of ideas pass through various stages of development, namely those of fiction, hypothesis and dogma; and conversely dogma, hypothesis and fiction” (124). In this context, he identifies that a hypothesis becomes a stable dogma “through repeated confirmation” (125). This ideational shift from fiction to hypothesis to dogma is, in many respects, akin to Luhrmann’s claims that making gods and spirits real demands “intention and attention” (How God Becomes Real, 17). Throughout her book, Luhrmann frequent identifies different aspects of consistent intention and attention that engender the faith frame. Where Vaihinger is beneficial, though, is in allowing the faith frame to have a more specific process linked with the logical function and behavior in regard to the logical function.

Third, although Vaihinger focuses on the psyche and logical function, his description of how we attain knowledge, could be an intriguing approach to literary texts, perhaps beyond his scope but interesting nonetheless. In describing the logical function, reality, and apperception, he writes the following:

The psyche works over the material presented to it by the sensations, i.e. elaborates the only available foundation with the help of the logical forms; it sifts the sensations, on the one hand cutting away definite portions of the given sensory material, in conformity with the logical functions, and on the other making subjective additions to what is immediately give. And it is in these very operations that the process of acquiring knowledge consists, and it is all the while departing from reality as given to it. (157)

Put another way, Vaihinger argues that our perceptions of reality become more distant from reality as our logical functions sift through and add to the original input. This framing could, in fact, yield interesting results about biblical texts. While theorists like Benjamin Harshav advocate for literary texts that unfold, Harshav’s approach paired with Vaihinger could yield an approach focus on how sensations unfold as a form of knowledge. Moreover, such a consideration can also ask, “Did this author intend to represent a departure from reality or a movement and adherence to reality as the characters in the narrative experience more sensation input that shapes their subsequent actions?” For now, I’m not sure, but exploring this question in another post might be worthwhile.

Fourth, I want to end this post with some of my favorite quotes from Vaihinger. While I don’t have much to say about them, his words are thought provoking at least to me: “Thought in this way, creates for itself an exceedingly artificial instrument of enormous practical utility for the apprehension and elaboration of the stuff of reality; but a mere instrument, although we often confuse it with reality itself” (208). A page later, he write what echoes Simeon Chavel’s comment in a Criterion article about Johan Huizinga and religion as “as is” instead of “as if”: “If the psyche regards the general idea as a thing with attributes, it need not be deprived of this convenient and useful game; but the game should not be taken seriously so that the as if becomes a rigid it is” (209).

Review: “How God Becomes Real: Kindling the Presence of Invisible Others” by T. M. Luhrmann

In How God Becomes Real, T. M. Luhrmann’s goal is simple: to explore and explain why and how humans “conceive of that which is not available to the senses” (xi). And while other scholars highlight imagination’s role in enabling religion, Luhrmann specifically investigates how religious behavior toward the invisible other enables “what is unseen to feel more present and alter[s] the person who performs them” (xii). Put another way, her central claim is that “god or spirit – the invisible other – must be made real for people, and that this real-making changes those who do it.” To substantiate her claim, each chapter works through a different hypothesis.

In Chapter One, Luhrmann argues that “people don’t (easily) have faith in gods and spirits” (xii). She develops this argument first by highlighting that while the modern West has a culturally specific way of thinking about what is real, indeed all cultures do so, humans nonetheless “distinguish what counts as natural from what is beyond the natural, even though they may draw the line in different ways and come to different conclusions at different times about what is on which side of the line” (5). So, drawing on a range of psychological and anthropological literature, she highlights how people – cross-culturally – think about and behave regarding invisible others in a way distinct from how they interact with ordinary objects. Put another way, “one remembers and anticipates as if gods and spirits matter” through religious ritual. Luhrmann makes sense of this line between the material and invisible other by introducing what she calls the faith frame: “In this way of thinking and interpreting, people hold gods and spirits in their awareness as if those gods and spirits are present and engaged” (22). She explains the faith frame via the notion of serious play, wherein Luhrmann echoes previous anthropologists who observed that “the sacred has a play-like quality” in which “the play claims,” namely, claims with no clear root in reality, “are also serious claims about the world.”

In Chapter 2, Luhrmann explores the role of narrative and world building in establishing believable religion [1]. This world, or paracosm, enables religious followers “to sustain their faith frame” (26) and grips their “private imagination so powerfully that . . . they kindle the sense that they are true”: world building and the paracosm make god feel more real. Such religious narratives occurring within a paracosm, a constructed world, thereby enable “us to imagine the characters as if they were real” (29) and build a sort of relationship with characters; however, in Luhrmann’s discussion, those characters with whom we build relationships in the world are gods and spirits. Thus, she effectively and rightly leverages narrative cognitive sciences to explain aspects of religious experience. Moreover, while a religious world, a paracosm, can mirror fiction, the religious paracosm has certain rules of engagement, signs of participation, and means of interaction, and such “interaction with the invisible other is one of the central features that sets the special world of faith apart from fiction” (32). After describing her in-field experiences regarding these through requirements for a religious paracosm, Luhrmann again highlights how serious play, the faith frame, allows practitioners 1) to use narrative and ritual to imagine and represent an invisible god and 2) to create a “private-but-shared imaginative world” (56).

In Chapter 3, Luhrmann explores the central role of training and orienting imaginations for their respective paracosms: “Absorption and inner sense cultivation kindle the realness of gods and spirits” (58). That is, based on her fieldwork and academic studies, “something like talent and training facilitates the felt realness of gods and spirits and the kinds of experiences people deem spiritual” (60). This claim is justified first via her fieldwork on witchcraft in England and on Christianity in evangelical Christian communities, wherein individuals learned how to treat what would normally be considered internal phenomena as external with an invisible other. Such an observation is reinforced by the Tellegen Absorption Scale, which shows that “people who score highly in absorption are more likely to say that God speaks to them” and that they have experienced God being present and alive (71) – an invisible other. Furthermore, based on her fieldwork, Luhrmann argues that inner-sense cultivation enables people to experience an invisible other. That is, various traditions encourage practices wherein people treat words and images internally generated as if they were generated externally or developing more vivid mental imagery and explain its origin as externally based on a constructed paracosm. Simply put, developing one’s ability to imagine vividly and to blur the internal-external boundary yields perceived relationships with invisible others.

In Chapter 4, Luhrmann builds on the previous chapters by not just highlighting the inner-outer boundary in one’s mind but by showing how the boundary, or the in-between area, plays a role in the religious imagination inasmuch as the boundaries speaks to how different ideas of “the mind” impact understandings. Indeed, how one thinks about the mind directly impacts how one judges or interprets an event or experience. So, Luhrmann discusses three case studies involving Christian churches. Here, she highlights that people experienced God in different ways in these diverse contexts “because of the specific ways that they attend to their own experience” (100). Similarly, the means by which God “spoke” back differed based on local training, cultures, and other factors. Therefore, Luhrmann effectively demonstrates that how people understand mind-stuff, real-stuff, and the in-between directly impacts how God becomes real for them.

In Chapter 5, Luhrmann’s more technical approach shows how “practices of attention shape the most basic evidence people have that gods and spirits respond” (111). For example, individuals in certain contexts might have goosebumps; and such a stimulus in some contexts is taught to be indicative of divine presence. Therefore, she works to account for this sort of attention to stimuli. First, Luhrmann draws from Emil Kraedpelin’s notion of “kindling” to suggest that religious experiences attributed to a supernatural source shape how one experiences the events itself and future events; and kindling in an ongoing process becomes “more habituated and more fluent for members of that social group” (113). Such kindling comes about through building blocks and event cognition: certain bodily events are “incorporated into accounts of gods and spirits” (114) and “categories through which people identify the events” (114), respectively. With this theoretical framework, Luhrmann designates three broad kinds of events: phenomena with names but no specific bodily anchor (e.g., certain feelings, such as goosebumps, when they perceive god as speaking to them), bodily affordances (i.e., experiences that occur everywhere but can take special meaning in a religious tradition, such as “a Holy Spirit experience” after crying in a church setting), and anomalous events (e.g., sleep paralysis) that “may or may not carry culturally specific labels” (116). While heuristic in nature, these categories nonetheless enable Luhrmann to define how people relate to and perceive their bodily experiences. So, she links these categories with her theory of spiritual kindling from previous work to show that “the theory of spiritual kindling predicts that the frequency of events deemed spiritual is shaped by culture” (120). Finally, she shows the value of this framework through two case studies, one of a US-based charismatic church and the other of Thai Buddhists: both groups pay attention to different things. So, she concludes, “their attentional patterns can alter something as basic as their perceptual experience. ‘Kindling’ is a more specific account of how attentional learning unfolds for people” (135).

In Chapter 6, Luhrmann explores a simple question: why does prayer work? Fundamentally, she describes prayer as a metacognitive process that naturally involves emotion management and thus changes “the way people attend to their own mental processes” (139). Here, she explores how multiple facets function metacognitively: reorienting toward the positive (gratitude), organizing experiences (confession), the assertion of hope (asking), words meaning more when speaking to an other (even an invisible other!), and the brain treating personalized prayer to an invisible other as if a person were speaking to a friend forming a real social relationship. Of all of Luhrmann’s chapters, this was one of my favorites.

In Chapter 7, Luhrmann works to bring the various chapters together by describing more broadly how people create social relationships with gods and spirits, with invisible others. So, she shows how various field experiences of a god’s social relationship can be good for individuals but not the social whole. Such diverse parasocial experiences, Luhrmann suggests, derive from differing senses of inner other and imaginal relationships. And she also shows examples of how social relationships with gods are clearly not good for the social whole. Thus, Luhrmann fundamentally addresses not only “why people think gods and spirits are real but about how they become and are real for them” (184).

Overall, I enjoyed Luhrmann’s work. And because the Ood will undoubtedly sing Doctor Luhrmann’s praise, I will instead focus on engaging with specific aspects of How God Becomes Real.

First, although I agree with and appreciate Luhrmann’s frame for religion, the as-if frame derived from Johan Huizinga’s Homo Ludens, more engagement with H. Vaihinger’s The Philosophy of ‘As If’: A System of Theoretical, Practical and Religious Fictions of Mankind, would have strengthened her notion of a faith frame. Although I do not have access to Huizinga’s book at the moment, Luhrmann’s representation of Homo Ludens does not consider what underlies the work. Vaihinger uses the as-if framework to explain the psyche’s logical function: everything is perceived “as if” because we can never describe reality in the truest sense. As such, the human logical function, or how we perceive things, always uses fiction by necessity. So while Luhrmann rightly draws from how play theorists use Vaihinger’s as-if framework, more engagement with Vaihinger may have enriched her discussion. For example, if we agree with Vaihinger that all human perception is filtered through this as-if framework and that this as-if framework is necessarily a fiction working toward understanding reality, how might that impact her work? After all, the as-if framework aims to describe reality, but focusing on making an invisible other become real runs contrary to this logical function, especially when people using this as-if framework fail to recognize that they are, in fact, using a fictional framework. In short, more attention to Vaihinger would have enriched this study. (Admittedly, this critique may have more to do with the play theorists than with Luhrmann.)

Second, to substantiate Luhrmann’s idea of a paracosm, we ought to turn to an outright construction of a paracosm. Karl Barth’s “The Strange New World within the Bible” explicitly argues that the Bible is not about history but rather leads readers “into a new world, into the world of God” ( This statement affirms Luhrmann’s comment that a paracosm, or in this case the Bible, enables followers to know their god through narrative. To push this point further: the fact that Barth explicitly theologized a paracosm raises another question: to what extent does intentionality in creating a religious paracosm impact how gods and spirits become real to followers? I ask not only in light of Barth but my own practices. As I reflect on my Jewish spirituality, I know that I am creating a paracosm for understanding and interpreting the world, but I also know that the paracosm is not necessarily reality. Rather, it is fictional. So, how might Luhrmann approach this matter? Put another way, we have three tiers: people who construct paracosms without realizing they are doing so; people who construct paracosms intentionally and perceive them as representing reality; and people who construct paracosms while recognizing those paracosms don’t necessarily align with reality. While I don’t have an answer, I will say that the issue of recognizing whether something is fiction (in Vaihinger’s sense) again highlights that additional consideration of Vaihinger’s philosophy on its own terms may have strengthened Luhrmann’s theoretical constructions.

Third, as much as I enjoyed Luhrmann’s discussion on prayer, her discussion about prayer as metacognition could take into consideration metarepresentation. Within Theory of Mind, metarepresentation is our ability to tag and track information. What if, though, part of the metacognition in prayer is reorienting and retagging our metarepresentations of events, people, and ideas? Indeed, Luhrmann alludes to this idea, inasmuch as she says that prayer is a reflection that attempts “to sculpt, shape, reframe, reword, and remaster thoughts and feelings” (140). Incorporating metarepresentational reconsiderations as part of prayer in some ways aligns with Luhrmann’s comment on confession in prayer, that it enables people “to organize experience” (146). Ultimately, linking metacognition with intentional metarepresentation may be a more precise, helpful way of thinking through why prayer works. Moreover, intentional metarepresentation also becomes a means by which a follower and person praying can reinforce their faith frame, which compliments her discussion from chapter 1.

Overall, I highly recommend How God Becomes real by T. M. Luhrmann. As my extensive marginal notes in the book suggest, her work is a helpful theoretical model for thinking about religious experience and related phenomena.

[1] To be clear, Luhrmann does not use the language “world building” but rather simply a world. I redescribe Luhrmann’s work with world building in light of Building Imaginary Worlds by Mark J. P. Wolf.

Reflection: “Sin: The Early History of an Idea” by Paula Fredriksen

Without a doubt, Paula Fredriksen’s Sin: The Early History of an Idea is a classic, must-read book on, well, the history of sin. Her masterful study insightfully and thoroughly explores how concepts of sin shifted in the first four centuries CE: Jesus’s focus on Jews and the ten commandments as how to avoid sin, repent, and join in the kingdom to come; Paul focusing on pagans as part of a universal redemptive plan including “celestial powers, the lower cosmic gods of pagan pantheons” (138), and their eventual submission to the god of Israel (including the cosmic force called Sin); Valentinus’s claiming that ignorance and not knowing God’s will causes sin via the inability to receive revelation; Justin Martyr’s claiming that intellectual “misapprehension of the divine” leads to sin; Origen’s somewhat sympathetic approach to sin as being caused by beings, who were contingent on God, wavering (i.e., unreason leads to sin); and Augustine’s well-known original sin as linked to Adam. While scholars have undoubtedly spilled many pixels and much ink on Fredriksen’s work and the history of sin with regard to the texts she examines, I want to focus instead on her broader methodology and framework. That is, how does Fredriksen approach sin in the first four centuries CE, and how does that approach impact her discussion?

First, Fredriksen’s concept-cluster approach to sin is instructive for approaching any ancient concepts in religious studies. In the epilogue, Fredriksen notes that “ancient ideas about sin provide a point of orientation from which we can move out examine other concept clusters that defined early forms of Christianity” (135). Although she does not explicitly identify a cluster-based approach, she suggests as much by noting “other” concept clusters, implying that sin’s concept cluster serves as a helpful orientation. So, rather than simple lexical studies on specific terms, scholarship should focus more on conceptual categories and mapping those concepts. Admittedly, writing about concept clusters well can be difficult without a broader theoretical framework. While certain critical theorists may prove helpful in this regard, scholars ought to lean more into cognitive studies to map these concept clusters. To be clear, I am not suggesting scholars lean into cognitive studies when it is convenient; rather, religion scholars ought to be well-read in that field, knowledgeable about the specialty more broadly. Moreover, leaning into such a field does not necessitate abandoning theorists. Rather, as Lisa Zunshine articulates so well in Why We Read Fiction, critical and literary theory can and should inform cognitive studies and vice versa. Thus, Fredriksen’s approach is instructive but should be paired with more rigorous analytical models and theoretical frameworks.

Second, while I appreciate Fredriksen’s concept-cluster approach, she does not clearly articulate what terms and ideas function as indices for early Christian and Jewish concept clusters of sin. For example, she cites Josephus’s discussion of the Ten Commandments (Antiquities of the Jews 18.116–119) to reconstruct Jesus’s ideas on sin. In citing Josephus, she focuses primarily on the language of “justice,” “piety,” and “immersion” (i.e., tshuvah, or repentance) in relation to the Ten Commandments. From here and in conjunction with Jesus’s mention of the Ten Commandments (e.g., Mark 10:19), she concludes: “We can infer from all this that Jesus defined living rightly as living according to the Torah, as summed up in and by the Ten Commandments; that he defined sin as breaking God’s commandments” (16). But this claim is problematic on multiple fronts: Josephus’s language; Jesus’s language; and the absence of sin within these passages.

  1. In the passage that Fredriksen cites, she excludes what is arguably central to identifying Jesus’s concept cluster of sin, and this exclusion complicates her subsequent assertion that “he defined sin as breaking God’s commandments.” The problem? Antiquities of the Jews 18.117 explicitly identifies baptism and tshuvah (repentance) as not for the forgiveness of sins: “for that the washing [with water] would be acceptable to him [i.e., God], if they made use of it, not in order to the putting away [or the remission] of some sins [only], but for the purification of the body” (LINK). Put another way, the Ten Commandments, namely, Josephus’s piety toward God and justice toward others (Antiquities of the Jews 18.117), are indeed linked to immersion/baptism but are importantly decoupled from the remission of sins. As such, this text is a weak foundation for claiming that Jesus’s central idea of sin was that sin meant breaking God’s commandments, especially the Ten Commandments. For while John the Baptist explicitly links baptism and confession of sins, Josephus does not link baptism with sins but rather with purification. And while Josephus links purification with the Ten Commandments, John the Baptist does not explicitly do so (Mk 4:1–6). Therefore, the disjunction between John the Baptist in Matthew 3 and John the Baptist in Josephus problematizes using the texts in conjunction to reconstruct Jesus’s concept cluster of sin because Josephus and Mark’s John (whom she uses to substantiate claims about Jesus’s perspective on sin) seem to use slightly different concept clusters for sin.

    At the same time, Fredriksen rightly highlights that Josephus presumes the immersed individuals “had previously been cleansed by right conduct” (Jesus of Nazareth, 186; italics original) or, in William Whiston’s translation, “that the soul was thoroughly purified beforehand by righteousness” ( Put another way, Josephus’s understanding of baptism links with purification and presumes the baptized individual follows the Ten Commandments. By contrast, John baptizes individuals for the forgiveness of sin, a situation in which they confess their sins (Mk 1:4–6). Fredriksen blends these distinctive processes: “Repentance and sincere contrition before God, John and his contemporaries believed, would gain forgiveness” (Jesus of Nazareth, 186). While this generalization is not necessarily untrue, she nonetheless elides that Mark’s representation of John and Josephus’s representation of John understand and nuance the immersion process in distinctive ways: for Mark’s John, baptism is about the forgiveness of sins, although what constitutes sins is not explicit; by contrast, for Josephus’s John, baptism is about purification and presumes righteous behavior in line with the Ten Commandments, although immersion is explicitly not about remitting sin and implicitly not about confessing sin. As such, Josephus and Mark have somewhat distinct conceptual clusters around sin that ought to be discussed in more detail and recognized as unique conceptual clusters with overlap.
  2. A few pages after Fredriksen discusses how Josephus and Mark represent John in Sin, she suggests that Jesus’s mentioning the Ten Commandments in Mark 10:19 implies that he defined sin as breaking God’s commandments. Indeed, her initial step is undoubtedly correct: according to Mark 10:19, “Jesus defined living rightly as living according to the Torah, as summed up in and by the Ten Commandments” (16). However, the broader context implies that Jesus’s speech is not necessarily concerned with sin. After Jesus responds to the man’s question by affirming the value of living by the Ten Commandments, the man replies, “Teacher, all these I have observed from my youth” (Mk 10:19, RSV). Jesus responds, “You lack one thing; go, sell what you have, and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me” (Mk 10:21, RSV). In the broader context of Fredriksen’s prooftext, textual absences problematize her assertion that breaking the Ten Commandments constituted sin. First, a term for sin does not appear in Mark 10. As such, to simplify Jesus’s notion of sin to breaking the Ten Commandments is untenable without additional discussion and data. Second, the apex of Jesus’s speech in Mark 10:19 links the Ten Commandments with entering the kingdom of God, not repentance or sin. Thus, while Mark 10:19 conceptually overlaps with notions of sin, ignoring how the Ten Commandments function in the broader context of Mark 10:19 is untenable and requires additional textual support.

In conclusion, I thoroughly enjoyed Fredriksen’s book; however, her work still retains a problematic trend in scholarly discussions about sin: treating sin as a universal term encompassing social transgressions in religious contexts. While the category of sin can be a helpful heuristic category, distinguishing between a philologically based approach (i.e., indexing how sin as an ancient Greek, Hebrew, or Aramaic term functions) and a philosophical approach (i.e., working with something like Ricoeur’s Symbolism of Evil, which shapes discourse about sin) is imperative. When the philology- and philosophy-based approaches mix and we blur the borders, we quickly lose the ability to self-reflect on our methodology and the results that our scholarship yields.  

Review: “Documentality: New Approaches to Written Literature in Imperial Life and Literature” edited by Jacqueline Arthur-Montagne, Scott J. DiGiulio, and Inger N. I. Kuin

Jacqueline Arthur-Montagne, Scott J. DiGiulio, and Inger N. I. Kuin, eds. Documentality: New Approaches to Written Literature in Imperial Life and Literature. Trends in Classics 132. Berlin: de Gruyter, 2022.

Documents are integral in a historian’s pursuits. But what precisely constitutes a document is not always clear. To this point, philosopher Maurizio Ferraris recently raised the question of what constitutes a social document. Such a question is pertinent to late antique scholarship because his theory can address “fundamental questions about the status of (physical) documentary objects, their influence on reality, and the role of subjectivity and intentionality in their creation and reception” (5). As such, this volume’s contributors engage with Ferarris’s theory as a means to interrogate documentality in Rome’s Imperial period. This volume, then, “explores the implications of Ferraris’s documentality for the study of life and literature in the Roman world on its own merits” (8) in light of Ferraris and his interlocutors’ most recent critiques. 

In this review, I first offer a thorough summary of the various contributions. Subsequently, I engage with specific chapters and consistent themes based on what I deem relevant. This review aims not only to summarize the contributions accurately and thoroughly but also to encourage 1) interdisciplinary conversations about documentality and 2) further engagement with this volume and Ferraris’s theory and his interlocutors. 

As per any introduction, Jacqueline Arthur-Montagne, Scott J. DiGiulio, and Inger N. I. Kuin (i.e., the editors) frame the volume through an overview of documentality’s history (e.g., Hayden White, John Searle, etc., up to Ferraris), examines the word “document” and analogs in ancient Greek and Latin, and outline the broad historical context of documents in the Roman Empire. After summarizing all contributions, the editors identify the various contributions’ goal: to “address the materiality, authority, use, and literary interactions of Roman documents, examining different modes of documentation from the early Empire into Late Antiquity” (27). 

In chapter 1, John Bodel examines the role of documents for identity in the early Roman Empire. Based on two example cases, Cicero, and various imperial changes of three centuries, he shows that “classical antiquity never fully emerged from the oral stage of documentary development in which written declarations depended upon witness verification for validity” (53). In doing so, he challenges documentality theorists claiming that a society’s shift toward documents is a part of a given historical, evolutionary process fluctuating through time. Instead, Rome appears not to have engaged in the process as documentality theorists outline. 

In chapter 2, Jacqueline Arthur-Montagne examines how school copying exercises in the first four centuries CE shift ultimately aim for the texts to be stored in memory. With this observation established, she highlights how defining documentation in Ferraris’ terms, that is, the modern sense, does not necessarily map clearly onto Imperial period school texts, especially since the late Roman pedagogy aimed to “eliminate the necessity of the trace [i.e., the trace being a key aspect for Ferraris’s interlocutor E. Terrone] entirely” (70). Finally, after reflecting more broadly on “the practices of copying and memorization in literary education” during the Roman period, she concludes that school copying exercises are intentional traces that “contribute to the construction of intellectual identity and social reality in the Roman Empire” (75). Therefore, “the documentary trace provides a useful model with which to analyze ancient sources that do not conform to the definition of documentation in the modern sense of the word” (59). 

In chapter 3, Karen ní Mheallaigh, a specialist in ancient fiction and the ancient scientific imagination, explores what fiction tells us about ancient documentality. To do so, she suggests that Lucian’s True Stories challenges the real–fiction divide by preoccupying his text “with the details of a document’s material nature [to increase] in direct proportion . . . anxiety about its authenticity” (82), to create “the mere whiff of a possibility that the document might actually exist” (83) and to make “these fictions all the more exciting” (83). Examining three instances of documentality in Lucian’s True Stories,  she concludes that Lucian’s treatment shows documents as a place where “the potential for deception is always lurking” (101). As such, Lucian’s representation of documents challenges the extent to which fiction can be documentary and documents can be fictitious. 

In chapter 4, Inger N. I. Kuin examines Lucian to show how “Lucian’s manipulation of epigraphic objects in his imaginary worlds indirectly shows us something about the everyday experience of living with such texts, both from the perspective of those who could read them, and from the perspective of those who could not” (110). Similarly to Mheallaigh, she suggests that Lucian shows “documents are always duplicitous and unverifiable,” thereby rendering the literate and illiterate, who trust their authority, “profoundly vulnerable” (129). 

In chapter 5, Pierre Schneider investigates the extent to which documents were building blocks for ancient geographical knowledge. From a modern perspective on documents, such knowledge was based on documents; however, from an ancient perspective, Schneider shows that ancient geographers “assigned a certain degree of truth and reliability” (149) to different sources (i.e., they did not conceptualize the “‘neutral’ conception of documents as a certain quantity of information recorded and stored” (149). 

In chapter 6, Sjoukje M. Kamphorst draws from documentality theory to show how inscriptions, in particular, monuments, served to coordinate and align cities through a monumental referencing “the decree [that] can be considered iterations of the original act” (162), “anchors of shared knowledge and practice” (164). By the Imperial period, though, Kamphorst shows that such monumental documents began to connect cities to the Roman emperor, thereby enabling cities to become “a constituent part of the new imagined community of the Greco-Roman Mediterranean” (170). With this addition, the original purpose of fostering city relations through monumental inscriptions became less powerful.  

In chapter 7, Scott J. DiGiulio uses Aulus Gellius’s Noctes Atticae to understand “how at least one ancient reader approached reading different material in the Roman empire” (181). Through examining Gellius’s use of epistolaries, monuments and inscriptions, and even instances where documents’ legitimacy is problematized, Gellius aims primarily to document the Latin language. As such, DiGiulio shows that Gellius’s documentary conception differs from Ferraris and that of modern historians. 

In chapter 8, Jean-Luc Fournet challenges the line between literature and document by showing how various epistolary texts and petitions served not as documents but rather as textual exemplars, models for good writing.  

In chapter 9, Yasmine Amory how the role of orality in late-antique letters fits within Ferraris’s documentality frame. First, she highlights how some letters reflect “the unavoidable loss of the oral message that frequently accompanied the written text” (236). Second, she shows how messengers functioned as a sort of living letter accompanying the physical document. Further complicating the picture, she also demonstrates that some letters and oral messages served as small literary pieces for recipients, further blurring the boundaries between documents, literature, fictitious accounts, and the living letter accompanying letters. 

In the epilogue, Mireille Corbier examines how a particular tabula can exist in different contexts at different times. As such, the document takes on different significances, as well as how we or others classify the document.  

What makes Documentality a notch above other edited volumes is its organization. Whereas other volumes often read like disparate academic articles, the editors carefully weaved this volume’s contributions into what feels like a coherent, consistent, well-structured volume. Each chapter references others consistently and well, thereby interacting with each other; the fundamental issue is addressed in each chapter (i.e., documentality via Ferraris and his interlocutors); each chapter clearly theorizes on notions of documentation: these various aspects result in a united, coherent volume that I enjoyed reading beginning to end. 

Additionally, while Documentality is beyond the scope of what I typically read, the volume nonetheless provides a helpful template for engaging with theories of documentality in other fields. In recent discussions with biblical and religion scholars, this book has come to the forefront of conversation precisely because the theory of documentality is playing an important role in ongoing scholarship; however, these folks have not realized that classics scholars are just now exploring this new(ish) theory of documentality. Therefore, I look forward to seeing how this volume shapes conversations in analogous scholarly fields. 

Thus, I recommend reading Documentality, at the very least the introduction and specific chapters related to your interests. And while I could quip with minor points in individual chapters (or should I say documents?), such criticisms would not take away from the volume’s overall strengths: coherency, consistency, strong engagement with an important theorist, and generally interesting, engaging discussions and arguments. 

Reflection: “Why We Read Fiction: Theory of Mind and the Novel” by Lisa Zunshine

Although I typically read scholarship directly related to biblical and ancient Near Eastern studies, recent conversations inspired me to begin pushing those limitations. For one, a friend of mine with a PhD in English would frequently highlight that English Literature has already done what many biblical scholars are doing with the Bible. So, I figured reading into recent scholarship in the English literature field would be beneficial to biblical and religious studies. In this case, Zunshine’s Why We Read Fiction fits the bill.

As usual, this reflection will first provide a thorough summary. Subsequently, I will engage with specific ideas and issues, either critiquing them or showing how certain ideas would be helpful for scholars of religion.


Part I introduces Theory of Mind (ToM) and how ToM relates to reading fiction. Using an example of Peter’s trembling in Mrs. Dalloway, Zunshine suggests that recent studies in cognitive psychology show our ability “to explain behavior in terms of the underlying states of mind” (4) and offer insight into how and why we interact with literary texts. So while ToM is often discussed in social contexts, ToM can be helpful for thinking about literature, which “capitalizes on and stimulates Theory of Mind mechanisms” (10). She then offers The Curious Case of the Dog in the Night-Time to explain how ToM can work in relation to storytelling, though she carefully nuances that work in this area of cognitive studies is ongoing. Subsequently, Zunshine highlights an important distinction between literary scholars and cognitive psychologists: whereas literary scholars view one’s effortless mind-reading (i.e., ToM) on a correct-incorrect spectrum, cognitive psychologists view all mind-reading as effortless even if wrong. Next, she draws from various cognitive and literary studies to make one of her key claims (for which she offers much nuance): we read fiction because it tests and makes us aware of our mind-reading capabilities. To exemplify the value of a ToM approach, she reads Mrs. Dalloway and illustrates how we as readers engage with the process of mind-reading through Wolff’s embedded intentionalities. Foreseeing the danger of folks claiming that this ToM approach to literature may one day be the only way, she nuances her claim that this approach is one of many cognitive approaches and that many aspects remain in the realm of literary analysis. Finally, she connects her cognitive analysis to previous scholarship in order to show the importance of interdisciplinary work when it comes to literary studies (in her case with cognitive studies).

Part II shifts from generic ToM to metarepresentation: “Our metarepresentational ability allows us to store certain information/representations ‘under advisement’ [. . .]. The ‘meta’ part of the representation, that little ‘tag’ that specifies the source of the information [. . .] is what prevents the representation from circulating freely within our cognitive system and from being used as an input to ‘many inferential processes, whose outputs are inputs to others” (50). Such metarepresentation, “always context-dependent and potentially fluid” (52), relates to ToM inasmuch as we must track the sources of information when mind-reading (esp. keeping track of ourselves as the source of information as opposed to others). Next, Zunshine articulates how a damaged metarepresentational capability impacts social situations by considering 1) schizophrenia reflects one’s inability to source-monitor and 2) Katerina Ivanovna’s conflict occurs due to her inability to source-monitor. Moreover, as Zunshine shows through an example from New York Times, all people struggle with source monitoring to a degree. And “our capacity for ‘monitoring and reestablishing the boundaries within which each representation remains useful’ thus underlies crucially in our practice of literary interpretation” (64).

These observations engender a bigger theoretical question: How can metarepresentation and source-monitoring explain how we discriminate “among the levels of truth-value associated with a given representation” (72)? Here, she suggests that “our cognitive makeup allows us to stre a given representation with a very strong, perhaps permanent, source tag.” Then, “once we are decided on the overall metarepresentational framing of the giving story (a decision mediated by a variety of cultural institutions), we can process its constituents as so many architectural truths” (72). Notably, this section of Zunshine’s work was remarkably synthetic, bringing together a wide range of voices that can be helpful for theorizing more broadly on literature, truth-value, and metarepresentation.

Before shifting to a range of literature that challenges source-monitoring and ToM, Zunshine begins by showing how even a simple text without multiple levels of intentionality, like Beowulf, nonetheless reflects that our ToM and metarepresentational capacity results in the reality that one can always have a different experience reading the same fictional texts at different times in life. The next five sections go into great detail to articulate various aspects of ToM and metarepresentation through specific examples in the story of Don Quixote, Clarissa, and Lolita. In this context, she addresses Don Quixote’s story as a key example of compromised source monitoring (prior to the more extreme examples in Lolita and Clarissa), the role of an unreliable narrator in engaging and titillating our metarepresentational capacity, the implied author debates as related to the broader “function of the source-monitoring ability paid out in a very particular social environment, that is, among the people self-selected to pay attention to textual ambiguities” (81), the extreme problem of source-monitoring in Clarissa, and the also complicated and problematic source monitoring in Lolita.

Part III explores another aspect of ToM: concealing minds. She does so by examining the detective novel, which she equates to “lifting weights at the gym,” in as much as the detective genre intentionally plays with ToM and metarepresentation. After discussing key elements of detective novels, she concludes that while “all fictional narratives rely on and tease our Theory of Mind, some narratives engage to a higher degree one cluster of cognitive adaptations associated with our ToM than another cluster of such adaptations” (153). Moreover, she draws the broader conclusion that her approach to literature avoids a fear expressed by some literary critics that assuming the fictional reading and writing process is “dependent, contingent, or a mere reflection of other more basic social and psychological processes” (153) is dangerous. Instead, Zunshine argues, a ToM approach enables scholars to see “such narrative as endlessly experimenting with rather than automatically executing given psychological tendencies,” and “this approach opens new venues for literary historians wishing to integrate their knowledge of specific cultural circumstances implicated in the production of literary texts with important new insights into the workings of our brain/mind” (155).

Her final conclusion is simple: in light of an in-depth consideration of ToM and metarepresentation in relationship to literature, “we do read novel because they engage our ToM, but we are at present a long way off from rasping fully the levels of complexity that this engagement entails” (164). Put another way, fiction is a quality workout for our ToM capacities.


As implied at the outset of this review, I am less concerned with critiquing Zunshine’s work and more interested in showing the value of her work for the study of religion. So, let’s get started.

First, the broader framework of ToM and metarepresentation is particularly helpful for thinking through book-centered religious traditions. Indeed, fiction is not necessarily “true” in the sense that it does not work to represent lived reality but rather an imaginary world. Nonetheless, Zunshine rightly highlights the tension between the “fiction-history” division as it relates to metarepresentation. Where Zunshine’s use of ToM and metarepresentation can be helpful, though, is in regard to how folks categorize and source monitor religious texts. Beyond modern fiction as a locus for metarepresentation, the same issue appears in biblical texts. For evangelical Christians, for example, the source of the biblical text is less rooted in a real individual and more rooted in a god made visible (thinking with Tanya Luhrmann’s framework). Similarly, Second Temple period literature like the book of Jubilees purports to be from God (i.e., our metarepresentational capacity is direted to tag the source of the narrative to God). I suggest a tension emerges between the god of Jubilees and the god of evangelical Christians precisely because the language for such cognitive metarepresentation is the same, but the actual sources are not. This observation is especially true when we consider evangelical Christians who often claim that Jews and Christians have the same god: even if texts overlap and the same term is used to designate the source of the particular texts, the nature of the source via metrepresentational tagging is distinct.

Second, and especialy in light of Luhrmann’s recent How God Becomes Real, the cognitive processes Zunshine introduces to the study of literature can be equally helpful for theorizing how religion works and how we determine the boundaries for what constitutes religion in the twenty-first century. As Zunshine writes, “Literature pervasively capitalizes on and stimulates Theory of Mind mechanisms that had evolved to deal with real people, even as on some level readers do remain aware that fictive characters are not real people at all” (10). These interactions through our developed ToM are delivered “by direct interactions with other people or by imaginary approximation of such interactions” (10). Key here is the idea of “imaginary approximation.” As Luhrmann shows, people make a god real by treating their imaginative faculty as if it were actually real. Thus, we can see a close relationship between the notion of fiction are representing and recreating a social environment engaging our ToM and a religious text engaging our ToM. While I have no doubts I could take these observations further, this will suffice for now.

Third, recent studies support Zunshine’s work. In a recent study on the brain and fiction, “Researchers found that the more immersed people tend to get into ‘becoming’ a fictional character, the more they use the same part of the brain to think about the character as they do to think about themselves” ( Importantly, brain imaging backed up this conclusion. As such, we can clearly see that how we process fiction and Self directly overlap. Undoubtedly, this idea ties directly into ToM and metarepresentation: as an individual begins to structure information from a novel in her brain, she ultimately thinks with the part of the brain that she uses to think about herself. Perhaps, then, our cognitive metarepresentation is not only tied up in how we perceive others but the extent to which we perceive ourselves and our relations to those sources. Returning to Luhrmann, then, we see yet again that one’s ToM in literature and the neuroscientific way of processing fiction can shed light on how our boundaries between fiction and reality are more porous than we’d like to admit in the West. (Then again, perhaps we shouldn’t talk about “fiction” and “reality” but simply of metarepresentation and physical, observable objects.) In Zunshine’s words, “The pleasure of being ‘tested’ by a fictional text . . . is thus never completely free from the danger of allowing the ‘phantoms of imagination’ too strong a foothold in our view of our social world” (19).

Admittedly, I have many more thoughts on this book, and I plan to reflect on them (or incorporate them into my own work) in the future. For now, though, these three observations suffice. Basically, Zuneshine’s work is particularly interesting in light of recent neuroscientific studies and Luhrmann’s 2020 book.