“Fictionality and Fields of Reference: A Theoretical Framework” by Benjamin Harshav

In Chapter 1 of Explorations in Poetics, Benjamin Harshav lays out his basic theoretical framework for literature. This frame is, I think, a particularly good starting point for modelling literary texts and mapping out their systems.

Within a text, he distinguishes between the Speakers, Internal Field of Reference (IFR), External Field of Reference (ExFR), referent (r; plural rs), and frame of reference (fr; plural frs). Overall, the IFR in the constructed fictional world within any text. Within the IFR exists both rs and frs. rs is anything which can be spoken of, real or non-existent, idea or event. frs are “any semantic continuum of two or more referents that we may speak about.”[1] A fr has various kinds: unique description in time (“they used to eat”; “during the exciting birthday party last year) or general (“autumn”); real or non-existent. Moreover, frs within texts are sometimes indeterminate because they are not known or understood by the reader. At last, frs are what a text is about: as a network of references integrated into the broader IFR, they describe “what the text is about.”[2] Meaning is also related to the EFR, though, namely “any FRs outside of a given text,” such as history or a philosophy.[3] For example, when an authors claims that “on the 14th of August, PN1 spoke aggressively to PN2 in the streets of New York”, the text evokes the EFR, namely New York, and incorporates it into the IFR.

Concerning the relationship between IFR and EFR, Harshav comments on Tolstoy’s War and Peace: “to what extent Napoleon, as presented in the IFR, should be taken within the presented limits and to what extent the reader may, or should, draw on the Field of outside knowledge cannot be decided in advance, but has to be negotiated in an interpretation.”[4] That is to say although Harshav distinguishes between EFR and IFR, the r or frs that are evoked by the IFR as originating from the EFR are subject to interpretation, in terms of how much of the r’s or fr’s world and characteristics should be drawn into the IFR from the EFR, even if absent in the IFR.

Undoubtedly, the ideas here are somewhat complex, simplified within this blog posts. What I want to point to is a few benefits of using Harshav’s theoretical framework. First, his framework is helpful for thinking about the relationship between a text’s fictional world (IFR) and the real world from which it draws material (EFR). As illuminated through his comment on War and Peace, though, the relationship between the EFR and IFR are subject to interpretation. Nonetheless, his framework at least provides clear domains which enables scholars to identify the fr in the EFR and IFR so that they can subsequently analyze the degree to which aspects of the fr in the EFR are evoked in the IFR. For Biblical Studies, this is related to the issue of historical context. That is, what sort of referents function as frames of reference within the fictional world of the literary text and to what degree does a literary text, such as Genesis 1, evoke and incorporate those frames of references and associated characterization from the EFR?

Second, Harshav’s model is helpful for identify the location wherein readers must place their own imagination into the texts. This occurs as a result of multiple frs being brought into tension with each other. Chapter Two, wherein Harshav discusses metaphors, is more clear on this point: readers must gap-fill when a frame of reference is mentioned. Naturally, this can vary in terms of what is evoked. For example, if a text says, “In the month of March,” the text may evoke distinct things for readers. For an individual in Washington, it may evoke weather which is rainy and around 50 degrees. For people living in other regions, though, the fr “March” may evoke other sorts of weather. At base, then, what is helpful is that Harshav’s theory and modelling of texts enables critics to more precisely identify where readers diverge on things evoked texts.

Finally, I have not yet finished Explorations in Poetics. I have no doubts, though, that Harshav’s other discussions will provide helpful theoretical foundations for analyzing biblical texts.

[1] Harshav (2008), 5.

[2] Harshav (2008), 39.

[3] Harshav (2008), 23.

[4] Harshav (2008), 27.


Reflections on Milan Kundera’s “The Art of the Novel”

Admittedly, I am not particularly familiar with the novels by Milan Kundera. Nonetheless, I read through a significant portion of Milan Kundera’s book The Art of the Novel because it was mentioned in footnote from a professor whose work I follow. In my reading, there are a few points which stood out to me. As such, I want to briefly present and discuss them in this blog post.

First, Part Four: Dialogue on the Art of Composition, includes some helpful terms and methods for describing novels and other literature. Kundera deems one category of description “lighting of the characters.” This is the mathematical structure of how the speech is divided throughout the novel. For example, Kundera describes his novel The Joke, for which he describes the lighting of the characters: “Ludvik’s monologue takes up 2/3 of the book; the monologues of the other three together take up 1/3 (Jarslav 1/6, Kostka 1/9, Helena 1/18)” (86). Such an approach to any literary text can be productive, inasmuch as describing the lighting of characters throughout a biblical text can help in precisely describing the text. After all, “Each character is lighted at a different intensity and in a different way” (86). By systematically and numerically tracking the lighting of characters, the data can help in comparing distinct biblical texts and their thematic thrusts. More generally, by noting possible similarities in terms of the lighting of characters, we can get a better sense of how scribes employ particular linguistic conventions by forming texts in certain ways.

Second, Kundera describes some types of narrative, not simply suggesting that narrative is a singular thing. Here are few examples of types of narratives presented by Kundera: continuous narrative which shows a causal connection between chapters; oneiric narrative; discontinuous narrative which does not show causal connection between chapters; and polyphonic narrative (87). Though somebody may have already done it, it would be interesting to consider how these types of narratives, or narrative modes, may be re-deployed for describing biblical texts. Alternatively, different narrative modes should be sought after by describing narrative in the biblical texts themselves.

Third, Kundera has some helpful comments on tempo: “Because tempo is further determined by something else: the relation between the length of a part and the “real” time of the event it describes” (88). Of course, some scholars have already begun to explore the issue of tempo and time in biblical texts. In particular, I think to Liane M. Felman’s recent dissertation on the priestly source, wherein she explores the tempo of the Priestly Source: “In a composition notable for its brevity, the sheer verbosity of this single eight-day episode raises many questions. Why does the pace of the storytelling grind to such a halt at Sinai? What is the function of the extended divine speeches containing ritual instructions? How do these instructions relate to the rest of the story, if at all?” (“Story and Sacrifice” by Liane Feldman). In other words, one of her main concerns is the purpose for the tempo change in the Priestly Source. This, I think, is a productive way to think about any literary text.

Fourth, and finally, is the interaction between the text of a novel and the reader: “the reader’s imagination automatically completes the writer’s” (34). That is to say, though the novel presents a story, aspects of the story are filled in by the imagination of the reader. This is akin to Barbara Smith’s discussion about literature and linguistics, wherein she suggests that the power of poetry, or perhaps more broadly the power of literature, is the fact that the reader must fill in aspects of it with imagination. Without the imagination, the poetry, or literature, becomes meaningless. Though I can appreciate this description of the relationship between text and reader, I do struggle with the implications of it: when a critical scholar describes the ways that a text works, namely the way it is structured and employs distinct linguistic conventions, what should our orientation be? Is our goal to find the base meaning of the text by interrogating the “true” meaning? Or is our goal to open up texts in new ways so that reader’s can re-imagine them with new understandings about the text’s history and composition? I have no answer. Though, I want to think through these things as I move forward.

Marvel, Religion, and Cloak & Dagger

One of the problems in Religious Studies is thinking about what constitutes religion.

For this reason, I was particularly impressed by the critical acumen of the script writers for the Marvel TV show Cloak and Dagger. In one scene, one character leads a tour through a church in New Orleans. Click here to watch the video clip on YouTube.

What stood out to me was the following line: “But you see Voodoo isn’t always its own religion; that’s a misconception. Voodoo is, at its core, a diverse collection of religious and cultural traditions that can either stand alone or be added to your faith.”

This description of the relationship between Voodoo and religion is, I think, helpful. Essentially, the character, and therefore the scripter writer(s), accurately captures the liminal nature of Voodoo. That is, it isn’t exactly religion. Why, though, is this so?

A brief look at the US Department of State’s coverage on Haiti can help to explain this. Describing the role of Voodoo in Haiti, the US Department of State reports: “While society generally is tolerant of the variety of religious practices that flourish in the country, Christian attitudes toward voodoo vary. Many Christians accept voodoo as part of the country’s cultural patrimony, but others regard it as incompatible with Christianity, and this has led to isolated instances of conflict in the recent past” (Haiti). In other words, a conflict exists between Voodoo and Christianity, some viewing it as legitimate, some regarding it as not legitimate. Unfortunately, with the rising predominance of Christianity in Haiti, Voodoo has become categorized as a sort of religion. What is the significance of being considered a religion?

As a practice (not necessarily a religion), Voodoo functioned historically within Haiti as a means to “contain and control a potential parallel political power in Haiti”, a political power which stood in distinction to Euro-American political power (Religion and Revolution in Haiti). As Voodoo has come to be categorized as religion, though, this function of Voodoo is problematized. As a religion, it is simply became “a mark of alterity (for Euro-Americans)”. When not categorized as a religion, though, it served as “the threat of rural, popular political power (for Haitian political elite).”

Returning to Cloak and Dagger, the previously discussed material is precisely why I appreciate the show’s description of Voodoo in relation to religion and culture. It recognizes that Voodoo cannot simply be categorized as religion. In doing so, Voodoo is deprived of its social and historical value and contexts. Instead, the script writers were careful to describe Voodoo as something not equivalent to religion, being a form of social protest derived from Brazilian and African traditions and giving practitioners a place in society that is not framed solely by Western notions of belief and religion.

Reflections on Barbara Smith’s Approach to Literature

In a previous post, I provided a summary and reflections on Chapter One of Barbara Smith’s On the Margins of Discourse: The Relation of Literature to Language (1978). Rather than summarizing the entire book here, I want to summarize two points which stood out to me.

First, one of the major concerns in Biblical Studies is thinking about how texts relate to history. Smith, in my opinion, offers a helpful perspective on this idea. In her view, a text’s composition, namely the time when it was actually written down, is a historically determinate event (34). Put another way, since the composition of a fictive utterance is a historical act, some of the meaning is absolutely historically determinate (138-139). A fictive utterance may be defined in contrast to a natural utterance: where a fictive utterance is usually present in imaginative works of literature like poems, tales, and drama (20), a natural utterance is a historical event, occupying a specific point in time and space (15) [1].

Elements which are historically determinate, of course, may be argued. For example, when reading Ps 29, the scribe’s poem was informed by a unique cultural library of linguistic conventions. Unfortunately, such conventions are not always evident to modern readers. As such, scholar must explore the historically determinate aspects and meanings of a Psalms by looking at other ancient Near Eastern literature in order to identify linguistic conventions and patterns. In doing so, scholars can better understand the historically determinate meaning of Ps 29, as well as other texts. Without identifying the linguistic conventions, there are errors of identification: “Errors of identification produce erroneous assumptions and bring into play inappropriate conventions. Conventions are conventions, however, and they may change over time and, under varying conditions, be alters” (141). Put another way, if we don’t understand the linguistic conventions of biblical poetry, we can’t understand the meaning of the poem that is historically determinate.

Simultaneously, though, scholars should be careful not to restrict the historically indeterminate meaning, namely the aspect of meaning which depends on the reader to bring to it life experiences and assumptions which results in the poem being “interesting” (154). This tension between historically indeterminate meaning and historically determinate mean is shown by Smith to be a spectrum. Adopting this perspective for biblical texts would be, I think, productive. Through clearly distinguishing between the types of meaning, scholars may engage with the text at two levels: the historically determinate level which informs intellectual and social knowledge and the historically indeterminate level wherein the human spirit exists and thrives.

Additionally, Smith’s “discourse” is informative regarding biblical genres on two fronts: didactic and proverbial. First, she defines proverbs as “sayings” which seem to have no known original speaker. As such, “it appears uncontaminated by ordinary human error or bias, and thus oracular” (72). Her comments indicate that proverbial sayings are unique on account of their seemingly non-human origins. Though I won’t divulge into discussion of how this perspective may impact biblical interpretation, suffice it to say that it has potential to do so.

Second, Smith discusses “didactic” in terms of poetry: “we may not say only that the line between didactic poetry and pure poetry is hazy, but that all poetry is didactic. We usually refer to a work as “didactic” when such propositions are explicitly formulated within them. But all works of literature may be seen to imply propositions, most of them not stated explicitly and many of them unstable – unspeakable – in terms of the formulated wisdom of the culture” (142). In short, poetry is all didactic. This make me think of the problematic characterization of Ps 78 and Ps 49. Both Psalms begin with remarkably similar language and style; however, they differ in terms of content. Ps 49 does what Smith comments on what is typically called “didactic” poetry: it is explicit concerning wisdom. By contrast, the content of Ps 78 takes a narrative form, the propositions not stated explicitly. On account of the distinction between the content of Ps 78 and Ps 49, there is not much consensus concerning the relationship between the texts. By employing Smith’s approach to didactic poems, though, it may provide a more productive way of thinking about their relationship. Moreover, it may provide a more productive way of thinking about biblical poetry generally.

[1] It is important to note that a natural utterance may also be written, namely an inscription. In an inscription, a natural utterance is performed upon reading it because the inscription, like a personal letter, is a historically unique verbal event, analogous to a speaker in discourse (20).

“Literature As Performance, Fiction, and Art” by Barbara Smith

Chapter One of Barbara Smith’s On the Margins of Discourse: The Relation of Literature to Language (1978) is titled “Literature As Performance, Fiction, and Art.” In what follows, I will provide a brief summary of this chapter, along with some of my own thoughts.

As the title suggests, Smith suggests three elements are present in literature: performance, fiction, and art. First, performance is present inasmuch as something must serve as the instrument of performance in order “to translate the inscription of that lyric into an instance of work” (6). So, in she sees two theoretically distinct activities, namely the performer and the audience, which can occur separately or together. A good example is silent reading: when one reads silently, the individual both performs the text through interpretation and reading and also acts as the audience to the performance. For this reason, literature is a performance, a simulation of natural discourse.

Second, literature is art because “literary artworks may be conceived as depiction of representations, rather than instances, of natural discourse” (8). That is, the artwork is constructed in such a way that simulates natural discourse, a fictive construction, albeit one attempting to represent nature and natural discourse. Art is not actually natural discourse, that is discourse which occurs in a particular time and space as an event in history. As such, she sees a distinction between nature and art because  nature wasn’t designed to engage us as an audience, whereas art is. This point, though, is interesting in terms of philosophy and theology. Undoubtedly, many theologians would push against this claim, suggesting that God’s creating the universe (whatever that means) was actually a work of art. Therefore, nature is art and we should not distinguish between nature and art.

At base, her fundamental claim is that “the speech of men in history and nature is distinct from the language of art” (13). That is, whereas the speech of men in history and nature is historically determinate and considered natural discourse, the language of art is constructed as a representation of the natural discourse. It is not, though, natural discourse in and of itself.

The Formal Method in Literary Scholarship by Bakhtin and Medvedev

The following is a short summary of the book The Formal Method in Literary Scholarship: A Critical Introduction to Sociological Poetics by M. M. Bakhtin and P. N. Medvedev. It is primarily for my own records.

The primary aim of Bakhtin is to describe and critique Russian formalism from a Marxist perspective. Though addressing many aspects of Russian formalism and being generous in his description of it, his is especially attentive to sociological poetics. That is, Bakhtin is concerned with the relation between life and literature. Literature holds refractions of mediated life, reality “reflected through the prism of the ideological environment” (17). As such, literature reflects it ideological horizon. The Marxist, sociological approach of Bakhtin points to several problematic aspects of Russian formalism in this regard. These include, though are not limited to, Russian formalism’s use of subjective psychology, ignorance for the role of materials as ideological, and suppression of meaning.

Instead, Bakhtin positively criticizes Russian formalism. The main thrust of his argument is that every artistic construction is connected to a broader ideological horizon and is in an act of social intercourse when read: “To understand an utterance means to understand it in its contemporary context and our own, if they do not coincide” (121-122). Though not the focus, Bakhtin’s approach is essentially one of dialogism: “Definite forms of social intercourse are constituent to the meaning of the works of art themselves” (11), namely between the art and the ideological horizon. Between these poles, within an ongoing dialect, readers find meaning.

Though I won’t quote specifics, he has a few comment on topics relevant to my own work. He talks about the issue of genre as being clarified through awareness of who the imagined or perceived audience is (13). He also addresses issues relevant to intertextuality, namely his discussion of transposition (22) and the boundaries of text groups (77). Finally, he has a relatively lengthy discussion about genre (129-141.

Reflections on 1 Samuel

A few days ago, I finished reading all of 1 Samuel in Hebrew. As such, I have a few comments based on my reading.

First, there is a strong distinction between the narrator’s voice and the speech. In terms of syntax, the narrator’s voice tends to be significantly less complex. Speech by various characters, though, contains syntax which is significantly more complicated. In other words, there is a shift in the linguistic register from narrator to speech. Although this is not a novel discovery in the field of scholarship, it is notable for myself. In English translations of the Hebrew Bible, the change is linguistic register between narration and speech is difficult to notice, whereas in Hebrew it exceedingly noticeable.

In light of the clear distinction between speech and narration evident in Hebrew but not English translation, what can we learn about how one should translate Hebrew texts? Distinction between speech and narrative is an aspect of what gives 1 Samuel its literary character and genre. When translating into English without noticing the change in linguistic register, a substantial aspect of 1 Samuel’s literary character becomes invisible. Thus, it is my contention that all translations of Hebrew should translate more than the semantics and morpho-syntax. Translations should be attentive to linguistic register and explore the ways in which English can be commensurable to Hebrew with regard to linguistic registers of the narrator and various characters.

That said, I may check out Robert Altar’s translation in order to consider how he deals with the issue of linguistic register in narrative texts for his translation.

Second, thinking in terms of some of my recent readings, I was intrigued by David and his men’s meandering through Judah. Though I am skeptical about the historical precision of 1 Samuel, it contains refractions of 10th and 9th century BCE ways of expressing leadership throughout the Levant. In a recent article, Mahri Leonard-Fleckman argues that “House of David” language is reflective of the broader Neo-Assyrian and Aramaic ideas, wherein “House of X” language is more about a particular population and leader, as opposed to a particular geographic designation and central town [1]. So, though I by no means think that 1 Samuel is a perfect representation of history, it parallels the ways in which other groups of people were represented in the 10th and 9th century BCE.

Third, 1 Samuel is complex. The literary structure of 1 Samuel is not self-evident; the major themes are not exactly clear; Saul’s interactions with cult matters are complex, as are David’s. That is to say, 1 Samuel requires regular, close reading in order to begin to develop a sense of what are the major aspects of 1 Samuel.

[1] Mahri Leonard-Fleckman, “The bīt X Formula in Assyrian Documentation and Aramaean Social Structure,” in Hebrew Bible and Ancient Israel Vol. 7 No. 2, Epigraphy, Theory, and the Hebrew Bible (2018), 170.

The Pharaoh’s Treasure: The Origin of Paper and the Rise of Western Civilization by John Gaudet

John Gaudet, The Pharaoh’s Treasure: The Origin of Paper and the Rise of Western Civilization (New York: Pegasus Books, 2018).

The following review is the longer form of a review which will be posted on Ancient History Encyclopedia.

Having completed his Ph.D. in Botany at the University of California at Berkeley, John Gaudet primarily worked as an ecologist throughout his career. His early work focused on studying papyrus in Africa, working as an Africa Region Environmental Advisor in the US Agency for International Development, and, most recently, working as a writer and ecology consultant. So, in The Pharaoh’s Treasure, Gaudet attempts to leverage his technical knowledge of botany and ecology for the purpose of writing a history of papyrus. In what follows, I will summarize the book and offer critical reflections on the content of the book.

The book is divided into three sections. The first section is titled “Guardian of Immortality.” It attempts to highlight on how ancient Egyptian paper and books were discovered, along with their cultural significance. The second section is titled “Egypt, Papermaker to the World.” It attempts to highlight the earliest forms of paper, its manufacturing, and how it came to be a central medium for communication in the ancient world. The final section is called “Enemy of Oblivion” and explores a variety of disparate topics.

Throughout the book, many interesting aspects concerning the nature of papyrus, what people thought of papyrus, and how papyrus faded as a central means of communication are revealed to the reader. Nonetheless, I have three primary criticisms concerning the book: the disjunctive character of the narrative; the general poor quality of writing; and the misrepresentation of history, scholarship, and sources.

First, the narrative of the book is, at best, characterized as disjunctive. In Chapter 18, Gaudet discusses Roman libraries. He starts off by addressing a library built in 217 AD. This is followed by discussion of libraries built in the 1st century BCE, 1st century AD, 2nd century AD, and ends in the 4th century AD, noting that “there were twenty-nine public libraries in Rome” (195). After having moved forward chronologically, Gaudet abruptly moves back to discussing libraries from the 2nd and 3rd centuries BCE. This is disjunctive inasmuch as there is not clear chronological or logical trajectory. Instead, Gaudet seems to write all over the place, inattentive to any particular logical trajectory. This is also true with how each chapter links to the previous and proceeding chapter. And, unfortunately, this is only one example of the many disjunctive stories and narratives awkwardly woven together into an uneven, distorted tapestry. Such unevenness makes it difficult to follow the majority of what Gaudet is trying to communicate to the reader(s).

Second, the writing is generally poor in quality. This concerns both the narrative aspects and the structural aspects. Concerning the narrative, a prime example is in his discussion of how a particular manuscript was transported to Rome. He writes, “As he stepped forward, we can only imagine his feelings, as with the greatest of trepidations, he snapped open the sealed latches on the container to reveal the contents” (275-276; italics added for emphasis). In trying to construct the narrative, Gaudet’s comment “we can only imagine his feelings” awkwardly instructs the reader to understand the story in a particular manner. A better, more engaging narrative would exclude the sentence all-together. In other words, he regularly tells his readers what they should experience, instead of allow them to experience it for themselves.

Finally, the book is replete with poor history, scholarship, and sources. For example, he comments that the various Semitic alphabets became the Latin alphabet (63). Though true, his source material for this is Wikipedia! He also cites Wikipedia as an authoritative source in Chapter 9 endnote 13, 15 endnote 9, and 24 endnote 9. Frankly, Wikipedia is the proper source for a research book. Although it may reflect common agreements among academics and within scholarship, proper representation should be sought after in books and articles written by scholars who specialize in the field. Such uses of Wikipedia is a rookie mistake.

Moreover, he lacks an understanding of history. In the following list are a few places demonstrating that his analysis regularly misrepresents history:

– “In this case, a papyrus scroll has trumped many of the previous carved or painted monumental artifacts” (29). Gaudet makes this comment to conclude that papyrus is a better means of communicating than stone or paper. This is, though, a gross misrepresentation of history. Certain mediums were used for communication based on their goals. So, monumental inscriptions on stone sometimes sought to influence the average passerby. Papyrus could never fulfill this function. So even if papyrus “trumped” in helping to preserve certain historical data, it could never trump how stone monuments functioned within history itself.

– “By comparison, another classic document of the seventeenth century B.C. that should have been a best seller, as it had wide importance and application, was Hammurabi’s Code of Law” (44). Gaudet’s comment is silly. It has been well established within scholarship that Hammurabi’s Code of Law was not intended to be legislation in the modern sense. Rather, it was more of a literary creation than anything else. Therefore, to claim that it had wide application is simply poor reading of an ancient text and demonstrates lack of understanding concerning scholarship and history about the text.

– Concerning the popularity of papyrus during the Roman period, Gaudet suggests that the writing on scrolls and subsequent storage of scrolls “began recorded history and the organization of knowledge” (150). This is false or, at best, a misrepresentation of history. Prior to the emergence of the Roman empire, we have thousands of cuneiform sources, many of which come from family archives. Such archives were preserved for thousands of years. Likewise, the famous library of Assurbanipal contained many magical-medical documents, letters, myths, and other types of texts. These were organized within the library. Such organization of texts suggests that the notion of Roman papyrus storage being the “beginning” of history is silly. Moreover, a brief look at cuneiform texts from the 2nd millennium further demonstrates that such a claim is utterly false.

– Gaudet cites Isaiah 19:4-7, which describes paper reeds as withering away and being no more. He subsequently comments that he was “amazed to read this prophecy in the Bible. Athough the timeframe referred to by Isaiah dealth with that part of the Old Testament that took place in the eigth century B.C.,… he seemed also to be predicting what would happen in a relatively modern age… if his prophecy were fulfilled in later times, as it was, there would never be any doubt that he was referring to a plant so important that before its demise, it had influenced the economic and aesthetic well-being of the Western world” (265). My concern here is that he seems to be expressing that, perhaps, the prophetic literature, namely the book of Isaiah, actually prophesied the demise of papyrus. Frankly, this is not history. Such a claim, or even suggestion, has no place in a book purporting to tell a history of papyrus. His comment seems mainly theologically and ideologically motivated.

–  Through the book, Gaudet presses the claims that papyrus gave rise to Western civilization. Consider, for example, his statement: “Luckily for the written word, papyrus paper arrived in about 3000 B.C. just in time to help kick-start Western civilization and literature as we know it. From then on, as cuneiform clay tablets faded into the background, the world could breathe easier as words became as transmittable and as easy to spread as the scrolls they were written on” (12). This claim is simply a wrong representation of history. First, he argues that papyrus kicked started the start of Western civilization; however, Gaudet never makes a cogent or coherent argument for the claim. That is to say, papyrus may have played an important role in the origins of Western civilization; however, he provides no reasoning as to why it, in particular, kick started Western civilization. Second, Gaudet claims that clay tablets faded into the background. Simply put, this is wrong. In fact, some of the most extensive, though relatively not well researched, period for cuneiform tablets is the Neo-Babylonian period (6th century BCE). Taken together, this example illustrate how Gaudet pairs poor argumentation for a claim with a flawed understanding of history and historical sources.

– Discussing Moses, Gaudet notes that portable records would be appreciated by Moses, a “point that Moses would come to appreciate when we was commanded to appears in 12000 B.C. at God’s bidding atop Mount Sinai” (21). Such a claim is problematic as Moses’ reality is not demonstrable anywhere outside of the Hebrew Bible. In other words, the narrative about Moses is not history – it is tradition. He continues: “Since the Torah also recounts the creation of the world and the origin of the people of Israel, their descent into Egypt, and the drafting of the Torah on Mount Sinai, it is in part or whole a significant undertaking, composed of many pages. If Moses had turned to a chisel and hammer, it may never have happened. Instead, he must have searched for a scroll of papyrus paper… We know that at a later date, among the Gnostic documents,” namely early Christian documents, “there is reference to God as having a pen of gold. Whether Moses was so equipped, we don’t know, or whether God loaned him His pen we are ignorant, but according to the story when he came down the mountain carrying tow tablets in his arms he must have had a copy of the Torah written out on a paper scroll sequestered someplace in the folds of his robe” (21). The problem of Moses’ historical reality aside, the claim that Moses must have written the Torah on papyrus is incredibly problematic. First, there is nothing in the book of Exodus suggesting that Moses wrote anything on papyrus. Second, it methodological wrong to use documents written from early Christianity in order to illuminate what happened historically. Though he would be justified in claim that the early Gnostic documents demonstrate how pervasive and important papyrus was within early Christianity as a medium for communication, his claim goes too far. One cannot use early Christian literature in order to insert ideas into texts written and composed at least 800 years prior.

Although this review is lengthy, it is because I hope to demonstrate how Gaudet’s work is full of problems, ranging from representation of history to writing quality. And though no book is perfect, I may still recommend them. In the case of The Pharaoh’s Treasure, I do not recommend anybody read this volume. The only helpful and interesting chapter simply described the papyrus plant, where it is from, and how it is produced. In other words, the only chapter worth reading is the chapter which discusses Gaudet’s expertise. History, though, is by no means Gaudet’s expertise.

In fact, a review of his first book entitled Papyrus expresses the same problem: “the plant’s history is not especially well-conveyed in the book’s scattershot opening chapters, which confusingly mix a history of papyrus use and mythology in ancient Egypt with tales of 19th- and 20th-century European explorers in Africa, plus such present-day swamp-dwellers as Louisiana’s Cajuns” (Kirkus Reviews). It seems, then, that all Gaudet has accomplished in his newer book, The Pharaoh’s Treasure, is expand the scattershot, confusing mix of history with modern tales of explorers into a full length book with a scattershot of confusing history and modern European tales.


Article on pesaḥ by Mira Balberg and Simeon Chavel

Although it is quite long, I recommend reading the article titled “The Polymorphous Pesach.” Here is a summary of the article:

Despite points of critical clarity in the scholarly tradition, the biblical account of Exodus 12 continues to be treated as a sufficiently coherent story of origins that relates how the Passover festival and the pesaḥ ritual were established and what makes all subsequent performances reenactments. This article surveys ancient literature presenting or invoking the pesaḥ, from its very first representation in biblical literature up to the debates about it in the Hellenistic and Roman periods, to show that the pesaḥ is an instance of “repetition without origin” and one that problematizes the very notion of reenactment. The article demonstrates that successive authors and editors do not provide any clear sense of how the pesaḥ was done in their time or what the general tradition was as to its origins; the original version was itself already fragmentary and unworkable; subsequent work to recast and re-present it is always interpretive and re-interpretive in nature, is conditioned by the argument of the larger literary work, and advances contradictory views. Because the early sources construct the pesaḥ in so many opposing ways, subsequent readers had unusual liberty to interpret and retold this important practice in whatever shape best suited their needs and understanding. The survey illustrates how completely the pesaḥ foils the attempt to write its history both as a practice and as a literary tradition, but also how it generated a long and rich history of creative thought around itself.

Mira Balberg and Simeon Chavel, “The Polymorphous Pesah: Ritual Between Origins and Reenactment,” in Journal of Ancient Judaism 8 (2017), 292-343.

The article is available via Simeon Chavel’s Academia page.

Chapter I in “Gesenius’ Hebrew Grammar”

The subtitle of Chapter I is “Elementary Principles or the Sounds and Characters”. To no surprise, it is very dense. Nonetheless, the density of data is counterbalanced by very thorough and technical discussions of the descriptions. For example, in the discussion of the ayin and aleph, Gesenius (6e) points to the various ways in which the LXX transliterated gutterals, along with Arabic pronunciation. In doing so, he effectively demonstrates how he, along with other scholars, determine the strength of vowels, how the Hebrew alphabet works, and other similar things. In other words, Gesenius deals with information in a manner which doesn’t merely present “facts”; rather, he attempts to provide multiple examples for any grammatical, phonological, or syntactical claim.

Moreoever, his discussion of vowels, especially that of the waw and yod with their respective phonological shifts (such as au to a o with and ai to e), is laid out very clearly. As far as I am aware, professors do not typically assign Gesenius as a grammar. And while I surely don’t think an entire class should use Gesenius as a first year grammar, providing excerpts of some of his explanations may help some students. I, for example, don’t do well with memorizing raw data; however, once I understand how something functions and why it functions as such, I tend to hold onto the information much better. Explaining how something functions and why something functions as such is precisely what Gesenius, along with subsequent editors, do. Therefore, Gesenius can be a helpful tool for teaching, at least when used judiciously.

Furthermore, one particular point by Gesenius  makes me want the more conscious of the letters used at the beginning of lines in poetry. In section 5h, Gesenius notes that “The sequence of the three softest labial, palatial, and dental sounds… and of the three liquids… indicates an attempt at classification.” Although I am not necessarily convinced by this statement, or any of the evidence referenced, it would be productive to consider the phonological value of consonants and how they functions within the Hebrew Bible, especially within poetic texts. Though I don’t know what sort of results this may yield, it would be an interesting feature to investigate when present. It could be aided by the basic divisions between gutterals, palatals, denials, labials, sibilants, and sonants (section 6o).

In conclusion, if you are a 2nd year Hebrew student or later, just go and read Gesenius’ Hebrew grammar right now. If you don’t want to, at least consult it to find clarification on particularly confusing phonological matters.