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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Review: “The Finger of the Scribe: How Scribes Learned to Write the Bible” by William M. Schniedewind

ShniedewindWilliam M. Schniedewind. 2019. The Finger of the Scribe: How Scribes Learned to Write the Bible. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

With a scarcity of epigraphs from Iron Age Israel in comparison with those of Egypt and Mesopotamia, reconstructing Israelite scribal curriculum is a difficult task. Considering the final publication of the Kuntillet ‘Ajrud inscriptions in 2013, Schniedewind saw data as primarily useful for reconstructing early Israelite scribal curriculum rather than as inscriptions for primarily understanding Israelite religion. By putting the inscriptions into conversation with one other, Near Eastern scribal curriculum, material vectors of transmission, and the Hebrew Bible, he provides a potential reconstruction of early Israelite scribal curriculum. Pushing his conclusions further, he considers how the curriculum enabled scribes to—in the words of his subtitle—write the bible. After summarizing the book, I will discuss criticisms of the volume and potentially productive routes to expand on Schniedewind’s work. As this review will show, though imperfect, The Finger of the Scribe is an excellent starting point for any scholarship concerned with Israelite scribal culture and practice.

In Chapter One, Schniedewind establishes the aim of the volume: to “demonstrate that early Israelite scribes borrowed and adapted from cuneiform curricular traditions in the early Iron Age in creating early Hebrew curriculum” (1). While recognizing the possible influence of Egyptian on early alphabetic scribal curriculum—through highlighting his interpretation of the Lachish Jar inscription as utilizing the hieratic symbol for five and a recent dissertation completed by Philip Zhakevich on Egyptian influence on early Hebrew alphabetic scribal culture—he instead focuses on the cuneiform curriculum “that was readily available to early alphabetic scribes” (7). That is, Egypt “always used foreign languages and writing systems for international relations” (9). As such, he suggests Egyptian is a less likely vector of transmission than Akkadian. He highlights, for example, that the scribal curriculum at Ugarit, though a West Semitic alphabetic script, is based on the Akkadian scribal curriculum. So, drawing from Niek Veldhius’ work, Schniedewind provides a summary of cuneiform school curriculum in Mesopotamia, using it as the model on which the early Israelite scribes based their scribal education.

In Chapter Two, Schniedewind applies the Mesopotamian curriculum to inscriptions at Kuntillet ‘Ajrud. Following his framing of Kuntillet ‘Ajrud primarily as a fortress along a trade route, he analyzes the inscriptions. First, he describes KA 3.11, 3.7, 3.12, 3.13, 3.8, and 3.14 contextually. Different colored inks as well as paleography found on the abecedaries reflect the varied statuses of scribes. In the case of KA 3.7, but especially KA 3.8, Schniedewind discusses their potential as lexical lists, perhaps about lexical polysemy. Likewise, he suggests KA 3.10 is a scribal exercise. Second, Schniedewind suggests many of the purported scratches on Pithos A are evidence of scribes practicing writing hieratic numerals. Third, the letter formularies (KA 3.1, 3.6, and 3.9) are scribal exercises of epistolary formulas, an exercise possibly using the same physical rubrics of Mesopotamian scribal texts, namely a vertical divider. Also notable is his suggestion that the sequence of words with the root א־מ־ר may have taught etymological roots. Fourth, a proverbial saying (KA 3.9) and what he calls “a corpus of literary texts” (KA 4.2) may have been school texts with religious themes. Considering this information, he tentatively explains the inscriptions as those of soldier-scribes. To substantiate the claim that scribal exercises at Kuntillet ‘Ajrud may be from soldier scribes, he turns to the Egyptian text “The Craft of the Scribe” (COS 3.2), a text that parallels the Hebrew “Letter of the Literate Solider” regarding the complicated relationship between scribes and soldiers.

Finally, he looks at the inscription regarding a certain “commander of the fortress” and an apprentice. Using the former, he offers an exquisite exposition on urbanization in the 9th century and how it may have resulted in the semantic shifts of ער. For נער, he draws from Hebrew, Ugaritic, and Egyptian texts to highlight that a נער could be both a soldier and a scribe, thereby supporting his previous argument that the inscriptions are those of soldier-scribes.

In Chapter Three, Schniedewind explores how alphabets and acrostics made their way into his reconstructed early Israelite scribal curriculum. Highlighting Egyptian hegemony over the Levant in the Bronze Age, he suggests that the invention and spread of the alphabet was a result of Egyptian presence. He further argues that the abgad order “was created as a local Levantine order for the alphabet to distinguish it from its Egyptian counterpart” (54). So, the abecedary itself—at Kuntillet ‘Ajrud and elsewhere—is evidence of early student exercises. This finds precedent and parallel in the bilingual Ugaritic-Akkadian cuneiform abecedary (KTU 5.14), itself an adaptation of a hegemonic power. Abcedary exercises also parallel cuneiform exercises, such as TU-TA-TI tablets. He then discusses how the centrality of the alphabet in the scribal curriculum is reflected in acrostic poetry of the Hebrew Bible, discussing various texts and theorizing that such forms began as scribal exercises and were repurposed into literature (e.g., Nahum 1:2–8). In other words, the forms practiced in scribal curriculum were adapted into literature.

In Chapter Four, Schniedewind explores how lists in elementary scribal education reverberate in biblical literature. First, he views the Kuntillet ‘Ajrud inscriptions, Khirbet Qayafa, and Gezer calendar via the frame of Mesopotamian lexical lists, central to elementary cuneiform education. In particular, he views the format of ירח in the Gezer calendar as a local adaptation of the Mesopotamian tradition of lexical list Ura 1 because a fragment of Ura from the Late Bronze Age was found in Ashkelon. In his own words, “There can be no doubt that this particular list was familiar to Canaanite scribes because this section of Ura was actually found in the fragmentary lexical text excavated at Ashkelon” (84). Second, he describes two types of lists in biblical literature: “autonomous lists embedded into the narrative and the use of lists to create a literary text” (87). For the former, he draws from biblical texts, such as Numbers 7:12–88. For the latter, he draws from texts like the “Oracles Against the Nations.” Throughout his discussion, he provides insightful textual comparisons (Akkadian military annals with Numbers 33:7–15; Solomon as being represented in a Neo-Assyrian scholastic tradition; etc.).

In Chapter Five, Schniedewind analyzes the letter writing genre as a fundamental aspect of Israelite scribal curriculum, focusing on the forms and technical terms of writing, as well as how such features were adapted into biblical literature. First, he draws from Near Eastern materials—such as Enmerkar and the Lord of Aratta, the way in which Egyptian narrative threads are carried by messenger scenes, oral performance of written letters in Ugaritic narrative poetry, and Genesis 32:4–14—in order to show that oral conventions turned into the letter writing genre were known to early Israelite scribes. Second, he presents multiple model letter school exercises from Ugarit, extrapolating from them the diversity in terminology for blessings and verbal forms, a tablet with a scribal exercise on the recto, and a palimpsest, all of which allow him to highlight the flexibility of the scribal curriculum at Ugarit. Third, in light of Near Eastern and Ugaritic letter writing and scribal curriculum, he describes KA 3.1, 3.6, and 3.9 as examples of letter writing scribal exercises, highlighting their broader context as scribal curriculum, a degree of creativity in scribal practice fundamental to authoring literature, and letter form diversity as indicative of scribal curriculum not teaching any rigid letter form. Fourth, he argues that the prevalence of w’t(h) in biblical literature up to the Persian period indicates that it was a formal part of scribal curriculum regarding letter writing via letter writing in the epigraphic record. Finally, he argues that the letter writing genre in prophetic texts was shaped by scribal curriculum.

In Chapter Six, Schniedewind outlines the next level of scribal education: proverbial sayings. Based on a “pious proverbial saying” in KA 3.9, parallels in Aramaic inscriptions, biblical correlates, the prevalence of such language in Amarna, the role of proverbial sayings in Near Eastern curriculum, and Papyrus Amherst 63, he suggests that KA 3.9.2–3 is the “smoking gun” (126) for the role of proverbial sayings in Israelite scribal education. Turning to the Amenemope collection, he argues that its presence in Proverbs is best explained by a 12th century BCE vector of transmission. To strengthen his proposed link between Israelite scribal tradition and Egypt, he suggests cultural continuity between Egyptian scribal culture in the Late Bronze Age and the alphabetic scribal culture in the Iron Age. For Schniedewind, all these connections and parallels—primarily exploited due to a single proverbial saying in KA 3.9—are evidence that proverbial sayings were a part of the early Israelite scribal curriculum. He concludes the chapter by providing examples of proverbial sayings in biblical texts, asserting a correlation with scribal curriculum, and suggesting that such texts are normal because scribes were trained “to make this type of integration of memorized sayings in various written contexts” (138).

Venturing into what Schniedewind calls “more turbulent waters,” Chapter Seven attempts an overview of advanced scribal curriculum. As he notes, his conclusions are conjectures based on comparative evidence and are thus quite tentative. First, drawing from cuneiform curriculum, he argues that orality and memorization were central to advanced scribal curriculum, a possible vector of transmission that transcends historical periods and explains parallels between Ecclesiastes and Gilgamesh, a fragment of which was found at Ugarit. Based on other textual parallels as well, he suggests that scribal curriculum was diverse and long lasting. Next, he frames and describe the Deir ‘Alla plaster texts as (a) having a Sitz im Leben of a schoolhouse and (b) encouraging oral recitation, cementing the link between scribal curriculum, oral speech, and writing. Third, in what he calls a digression, Schniedewind questions the relation between scribal curriculum and legal traditions. Casting doubt on the vector of transmission and link between the Covenant Code  and the Code of Hammurabi—as argued by David Wright—he argues that the Hazor Code (Hazor 18 in Cuneiform in Canaan) is the most likely corollary between the Covenant Code and Near Eastern legal traditions, asserting that it was “part of the cuneiform scribal curriculum in the Levant in the second millennium BCE” (156). He proceeds to suggest that texts, such as the Hazor Code, were recited orally. Finally, he approaches KAI 4.1.1, 4.2, 4.3, 4.4.1, and 4.6.4 as examples of school texts about theomachy, recognizing it as conjecture based on his previous arguments and Near Eastern parallels. At base, the advanced curriculum reflects an oral aspect of advanced scribal education, though it is highly conjectural.

Schniedewind’s The Finger of the Scribe provides an insightful and unique approach the Kuntillet ‘Ajrud inscriptions. By drawing from Near Eastern scribal curriculum, he effectively demonstrates that the early Israelite scribal curriculum—as evidenced at Kuntillet ‘Ajrud—may have been heavily influenced by the Mesopotamian scribal curriculum. Surely, scholars exploring literacy and scribal practices in the Levant should engage with this volume. That said, as Schniedewind occasionally suggests, many of his arguments rely on conjecture and extrapolative thinking.

The strongest part of Schniedewind’s argument is the description of his reconstructed scribal curriculum from Kuntillet ‘Ajrud. Initially, describing the various abecedaries (KA 3.11, 3.12, 3.12, and 3.14) and lexical lists (KA 3.7 and 3.8), he places these in juxtaposition with “Syllable Alphabet B” and TU-TA-TI. Regarding KA 3.8, though, it is worth noting that the words שערם and שמרן occurring next to each other teaches more than different ways to read the grapheme ש or polysemous words. Instead, it is notable that the letters of שמרן and שערם are the same—depending on how we read שערם—save for the נ and ע absent in שערם. Accepting Schniedewind’s proposal that KA 3.8 is a type of lexical list, the orthographic similarities may indicate that alphabetic scribal curriculum also taught how to distinguish between words with the similar root letters, even if the letters occurred in different orders. In the same section, though, Schniedewind assumes that KA 3.11, 3.7, 3.12, 3.13, 3.8, and 3.14 should be “understood as six lines of the same practice text” (30); however, he does not justify a synchronic interpretation.

Concerning whether Egyptian or Mesopotamian curricula influenced early Hebrew alphabetic scribal culture, he establishes early in his work that “the technologies and terminology for writing were taken directly from the Egyptian administration into early Hebrew alphabetic scribal culture” (6). Subsequently, he comments that Egyptian “scribal curriculum does not seem to have been widely disseminated” (7). As such, he looks primarily to the cuneiform school curriculum in order to reconstruct early Hebrew alphabet curriculum. Yet, throughout the volume, he highlights how the curriculum employed Egyptian technologies of red and black ink and hieratic numbers, uses Papyrus Anastasi I (“The Craft of the Scribe”) to substantiate a link between a נער as a military scribe, emphasizes Egyptian hegemony in the region as a key to explaining the invention and spread of the alphabet, and draws from the Deir ‘Alla paster texts—the critical editions themselves giving credence to the red/black ink rubrics as Egyptian—in order to describe advanced education. Plainly, it seems that Schniedewind understates the possible influence of Egyptian scribal practices on early Hebrew alphabetic scribal curriculum. Unfortunately, were Egyptian scribes writing on papyrus, it is no longer available today.

Consider, for example, Cairo 25759, an ostracon dated to the 11th century that Ariel Shisha-Halevy argues is a Northwest Semitic text in Egyptian hieratic script (1973). Though seemingly mundane, it shows that social contact occurred between Northwest Semitic and Egyptian scribes to some degree. More importantly, social contact is evident in a text which utilizes Demotic—an Egyptian technology—to write Phoenician. To write in such a way would require a strong social overlap between Egypt and Phoenicia, between Egypt and speakers of a Northwest Semitic language. Such contact can be further ascertained via icongraphy1, the Story of Wenamun2, an Egyptian medical papyrus from the 14th century BCE with a Northwest Semitic incantation3, and “The Craft of the Scribe” (COS 3.2).4 Early Israel’s trading and cultural interactions with Phoenicia suggest that Phoenicians scribes themselves may have served as vectors of transmission for Egyptian scribal curriculum and practices. Thus, Schniedewind should have put model letters and scribal exercises in Egyptian records into conversation and comparison with early Israelite materials.

Another point of Schniedewind that is questionable is the notion that Mesopotamian scribal curriculum somehow influenced early Israelite scribal curriculum. That is, his argument for social contact is on shaky grounds. Undoubtedly, certain school texts were present at Late Bronze Age and Middle Bronze Age sites in Canaan; however, that does not necessarily mean Canaanites were somehow familiar with the curriculum or that the presence of texts means they are a more likely vector of transmission, though he makes such assertions throughout. Hypothetically, for example, with so many McDonald’s wrappers in garbage, a historian from the 23rd century could claim that everybody regularly ate food from McDonald’s due to a material vector of transmission. Yet, the historian from the 23rd century, just as Schniedewind, must also consider the problem of social contact if any materials are to be considered a vector of transmission for some sort of knowledge, cultural system, or technology. It is due to plausibility of social contact, as well, that I think Schniedewind discounts too soon the degree to which Egyptian scribal curriculum and practices may have influenced early Canaanite scribal curriculum and practices. Plainly, I don’t disagree with Schniedewind entirely, as framing early scribal curriculum in Israel via Mesopotamian scribal curriculum is innovative and makes sense of obscure epigraphs; however, due to cultural contact with Egypt, it is probable that the scribal curriculum of ancient Israelite alphabetic scribes was equally influenced by Egypt, resulting in a melding of Egyptian, Mesopotamian, and native elements of for a scribal curriculum.

Additionally, Schniedewind’s analysis of “Proverbial Sayings” and “Advanced Scribal Education” are the two most conjectural and debatable portions of his book. For example, Schniedewind argues that scribes were trained to integrate memorized sayings into various contexts and were taught certain terminology orally—which was then written into various contexts—as part of the scribal curriculum (126, 138). He argues this in order to explain why the language in KA 3.9 parallels KTU 5.9, the Amarna letters, Psalm 20, and Papyrus Amherst 63. While appealing, this approach makes multiple assumptions. First, he assumes that KA 3.9.2–3 is a scribal exercise because of parallels with other texts. Of the other texts, though, only KTU 5.9 is clearly a scribal exercise. As such, I do not see good grounds for putting these texts into conversation as it concerns scribal exercises, culture, and practice. Second, as Schniedewind notes about “proverbial sayings” in elementary scribal education, aside from KA 3.9.2–3, “the Hebrew inscriptional evidence is almost non-existent” (134). Thus, Schniedewind’s construction of elementary scribal curriculum is based on a single text which he characterizes as “proverbial,” a highly conjectural characterization. Moreover, the texts to which he compares KA 3.9.2–3 are not all clearly scribal exercises or school texts, further destabilizing his assertion that KA 3.9.2–3 is an example of elementary scribal education’s “Proverbial phrase” phase. Similar issues are present in Chapter Six about advanced education.

Regarding content more theoretical in nature, though he uses terms like “oral” and “written,” he does not define his theoretical understanding of writing, reading, speech, performance, and other related subjects. For example, in his volume on reading and writing in Babylon, Dominique Charpin “proposes that in almost every case a cuneiform text would be read aloud either by a literate reader to him / herself or by a scribe to a non-literate listening, such as an official or royal recipient. Additionally, Charpin cites rare evidence that scribes might silently read to themselves as a means of rapidly checking their content.”5 Yet, based on Wearne’s reading of the rubric in the Deir ‘Alla plaster texts as an instruction for the oral performance of the narrative, he argues that such a rubric as the poetic parallelism is indicative that fledgling scribes memorized and recited texts (149).6 Following Charpin, though, how does the notion of “reciting” a text change when we consider that reading itself included “reciting”? These nuances should be further explored.

Furthermore, the rubric commanding “recite and memorize it” may also be a literary trope. Though about biblical poetry, Vayntrub’s perspective on orality is nonetheless helpful: how texts are framed as speech shapes our reading of texts.7 As a literary trope, the notion of “oral” scribal curriculum is more difficult to sustain and left me wanting further exploration. Of course, this view is complicated by Robson, who notes that “it is likely that Assyrian and Babylonian scholarship,” done by scholastic scribes, “entailed a great deal of memorization.” She continues by referring to Brian Stock on textual communities: “The question of oral versus written tradition need not be framed in inflexible terms. What was essential for a textual community, whether large or small, was simply a text, an interpreter, and a public. The text did not have to be written; oral record, memory, and reperformance sufficed.”8 Put another way, even if we consider oral recitation and aurality as central to elementary alphabetic curriculum, it must be considered contextually, in a particular textual community. This provide a roadblock to some of the comparisons Schniedewind makes between biblical texts, the Deir ‘Alla plaster texts, and various inscriptions with the content at Kuntillet ‘Ajrud. For his conclusions to be more secure, he should consider this roadblock. How is Kuntillet ‘Ajrud its own scribal community and how does it compare not just to other scribal exercises but to other textual communities?

Another theoretical grounds for what scribal education that would strengthen Schniedewind’s overall arguments is how to link “religion” to the inscriptions at Kuntillet ‘Ajrud. Early on, he notes that “education shapes what we write and how we write it” (3). Likewise, he comments that the debate about Kuntillet ‘Ajrud and the history of Israelite religion falls outside of the scope of the study, instead viewing “Yahweh and his asherah” as “simply part of a blessing formula used in scribal exercises” (24). Yet, by framing the scribal practice at Kuntillet ‘Ajrud with Bourdieu’s theory of habitus, we can more precisely describe the relationship between religion and scribal curriculum.

Consider, for example, Crisostomo’s description of habitus—“the socially formed, unconscious dispositions… that structures the actor’s orientations and actions”—in the Old Babylonian practice of reproduction, scribal education, and elementary curriculum: “Both in what the scribes wrote and in the activity of reproduction—the physicality of pressing stylus to clay—these scribes internalized particular dispositions and perceptions. The habitus produced via these scribal exercises is continually reinforced throughout the elementary education curriculum. Simple routines that form the basis of the educational system such as these carry with them the force of entire cultural systems. In the case of OB education, scribal practices reproduced a Sumerian culture.”9 As Crisostomo suggests, OB scribal curriculum was not merely a way of teaching writing habits which were eventually adapted into literary texts, an argument Schniedewind makes regarding the alphabetic scribal curriculum. Rather, scribal curriculum serves to reproduce entire cultural system through continual reinforcement. Part of the cultural system is the religious aspect. At base, then, by including the notion of habitus, we can more objectively describe the elementary alphabetic scribal curriculum within its social context. By taking such a perspective, we can refine Schniedewind’s conclusion that “scribal creativity had its foundation in the building blocks of education” (167). Instead, we may say that “scribal creativity had its foundation in the educational curricular habitus of reinforced and reproduced culture,” a refinement that allows us to consider why scribal curriculum forms were adapted into biblical literature alongside the cultural perspectives, systems, and ways of thinking (i.e., religion, economy, social groups, etc.).

Finally, Schniedewind does not consider the relationship between the writing—framed as scribal curriculum—and the drawings. The relationship between scribal curriculum or exercises and drawings, though, is a massive, distinct research project in and of itself.

Overall, The Finger of the Scribe is a helpful development in how we understand ancient Israelite scribal curriculum and its origin. Schniedewind establishes a firm foundation for future studies and Israelite scribalism. And although many of his arguments need to be refined, it is nonetheless a valuable contribution to the history of ancient Israel, a necessary starting point for any scholar interested in ancient Israelite scribalism.

*I want to express my gratitude to Oxford University Press for provide a copy in exchange for my honest opinions. Many thanks as well to Raleigh Heath, PhD student at Notre Dame, who provided helpful feedback on my rough draft of this review.

1 Note Keel and Uehlinger (1998: 17) who comment that Canaan and Egypt “had begun to exert considerable influence on each other already during the Middle Bronze Age” and it is likely “that the same ethnic groups continued to maintain their cultural system from the Middle Bronze Age right into the Iron Age.” In other words, the cultural interactions evident via art are a clear vector of transmission for Egyptian scribal curriculum, arguably a strong vector of transmission than a single lexical text with which a Canaanite may or may not have had contact.

2 Although clearly a literary text, Wenamun disembarks at Dor for nine days. At minimum, this indicates that Egypt had—or imagined—linguistic contact with Phoenicians as plausible. Trading large amounts of good presumably required a scribe to keep records. So, it is safe to assume that a scribe was imagined as being present in the Story of Wenamun. Thus, there is good reason to suspect personal interactions between Egyptian scribes and Phoenician elites in a city not too far from Israelite territory.

3 See Steiner (1992).

4 Though Schniedewind discusses “The Craft of the Scribe” in order to better understand the word mahir—as he notes that “the word mahir appears prominently and repeatedly as a West Semitic loanword in the well-known Egyptian school text “The Craft of the Scribe” (Papyrus Anastasi I)” (131)—he does not highlight other aspects of “The Craft of the Scribe.” James P. Allen (COS 3.2) comments that “its interest lies not only in its numerous Semitic place names and loanwords but also in its vivid descriptions of contemporary Canaanite life and customs.” Put another way, “The Craft of the Scribe” indicates Egyptian scribes were familiar with Canaanite—and thereby pre-Israelite ethnic group—land. Though the text was not discovered in the Levant, it does serve as evidence that Egyptian scribes were vectors of transmission for scribal curriculum models to alphabetic scribes.

It is also worth noting that he specifically notes, concerning the Deir ‘Alla plaster texts, that “the text uses red ink to frame itself almost as if it were copying the framing rubrics used in papyrus documents,” namely Egyptian documents. Though the text itself is not a vector of transmission, the technology and framing which parallels Egyptian scribal curriculum and practice is a vector of transmission.

Finally, it is worth noting that Egyptian is the best represented language in the Late Bronze Age, with more than two times the frequency of Akkadian texts. Even when comparing Egyptian text frequency with Akkadian, Sumerian, West Semitic, Anatolian, and Aegean, Egypt texts are still the most frequent. This is important because it suggests that early alphabetic scribes likely had more contact with Egyptian scribes than with Mesopotamian scribes. See Figure 2 in Sparks (2013).

5 Discussed in Matthews (2013: 70). See also Jean Boettéro, Mesopotamia: Writing, Reasoning, and the Gods (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1992).

6 See Wearne (2017).

7 Vayntrub (2019: 9). Her comments on textual performances is equally notable: “because these performances have come to us in writing, it is their representation as speech in the text that must be the central point of analysis for the scholar” (10).

8 Robson (2019: 37).

9 Crisostomo (2019: 76–77).



Allen, James P. 1997. “The Craft of the Scribe (3.2) (Papyrus Anastasi I).” In Context of Scripture Volume 3: Archival Documents from the Biblical World, edited by William Hallo.

Boettéro, Jean. 1992. Mesopotamia: Writing, Reasoning, and the Gods. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Crisostomo, Jay. 2019. Translation as Scholarship: Language, Writing, and Bilingual Education in Ancient Babylonia. Berlin: Walter de Gruyter.

Keel, Othmar and Christoph Uehlinger. 1998. Gods, Goddesses, and Images of God In Ancient Israel. Edinburgh: T&T Clark.

Matthews, Roger. 2013. “Writing (and Reading) as Material Practice: The World of Cuneiform Culture as an Arena for Investigation.” In Writing as Material Practice: Substance, Surface, and Medium, edited by K. Piquette and R. Whitehouse, 65–74. London: Ubiquity Press.

Robson, Eleanor. 2019. Ancient Knowledge Networks: A Social Geography of Cuneiform Scholarship in First-Millennium Assyria and Babylon. London: UCL Press.

Shisha-Halevy, Ariel. 1978. “An Early North-West Semitic Text in the Egyptian Hieratic Script. Orientalia 47 (2): 145–162.

Sparks, Rachael Thyrza. 2013. “Re-writing the Script: Decoding the Textual Experience in the Bronze Age Levant (c.2000–1150 BC).” In Writing as Material Practice, edited by Kathryn E. Piquette and Ruth Whitehouse, 75–104. London: Ubiquity Press.

Steiner, Richard. 1992. “Northwest Semitic Incantations in an Egyptian Medical Papyrus of the Fourteenth Century BCE.” Journal of Near Eastern Studies 51 (3): 191–200.

Vayntrub, Jacqueline. 2019. Beyond Orality: Biblical Poetry on its Own Terms. London: Routledge.

Wearne, Gareth. 2017. “‘Guard it on your Tongue!’ The Second Rubric in the Deir ‘Alla Plaster Texts as an Instruction for the Oral Performance of the Narrative 1.” In Registers and Modes of Communication in the Ancient Near East, edited by Kyle Keimer and Gillan Davis, Chapter Six. New York: Routledge.



Review: “Scholars and Scholarship in Late Babylonian Uruk” edited by Christine Proust and John Steele

978-3-030-04176-2Christine Proust and John Steele. Eds. 2019. Scholars and Scholarship in Late Babylonian Uruk. Cham: Springer Press.

Scholars and Scholarship in Late Babylonian Uruk is part of the Springer series Why the Sciences of the Ancient World Matter, which builds bridges between the history of science in the ancient world and other fields in the humanities. With a wide range of subject matter, including mathematics, astronomy, astrology, ritual, and more, this volume works well in this series. After providing an overview of each chapter, I will consider ways that the contributions to this volume can contribute to conversations in religious and biblical studies. I will also comment on a few of the volume’s shortfalls.

In Chapter One, Christine Proust and John Steele provide a broad overview of scholarly archives in Late Babylonian Uruk, outlining the historical context, scholars and scholarly archives, and archaeology of the ‘House of the āšipus’ of Late Babylonian Uruk. Subsequently, they review the Rēš Temple, which shows links to the ‘House of the āšipus’ via onomastic data. They describe the various excavations at the site, the modern collection from the Rēš Temple, and offer a tentative reconstruction of scholarly archives from the Rēš Temple. Though many texts remain unpublished, enough publications indicate two groups: Group A and Group B. Texts in Group A “seems more like a working archive, with many texts which are the result of ongoing astronomical practice, whereas group B seems more like a reference collection containing mostly copies of standard works” (45). Outside of astronomical and astrological texts, though, such a division is less obvious. Concerning the Rēš Temple archives and the two phases of the ‘House of the āšipus’, connections exist. But astronomical texts play a more significant role in the Rēš Temple archives than the ‘House of the āšipus’, possibly due to the role of astronomy in a temple as opposed to a private setting. Throughout Chapter One, they provide four tables: a summary of all tablets from the ‘House of the āšipus’, a list of all texts from in Room 4, level IV of the ‘House of the āšipus’, all joins from fragments of scholarly tablet at the Rēš Temple, and a summary of all tablets from the Rēš Temple discussed in the volume. Each table notes the Museum number, primary publication, genre, content, colophon, and chapter where it is discussed in the volume.

In Chapter Two, Uri Gabbay and Enrique Jiménez investigate Mesopotamian commentaries from Uruk, focusing especially on the Gimil-Sîn family. First, they describe how the Uruk scholarly school is part of the South-Central Babylonian school, highlighting how cult administration and scholarly activity shifted to local families after 484 BCE after the fall of Chaldean kings, texts reflecting more local theological practices in the Achaemenid period than in the Neo-Babylonian period. Increase in local families’ social stature led to the growth of transmission of tablets between Nippur and Uruk. Second, recognizing the special relationship between Nippurean and Urukean scholars, they examine how commentaries were compiled and copied.

In Chapter Three, Christine Proust analyzes metrological texts from the house of the āšipus. In particular, she highlights how the texts create bridges between the Old Babylonian system and Late Babylonian system. After analyzing the texts, she suggests that the metrological texts functioned in the household as a link between astrology and divination. As for the articulation and connection between the Old Babylonian system and Late Babylonian system, she suggests scholars tried to link these systems due to “the loss of ancient metrological skills by Late Babylonian scholars” (125). In linking systems, the traditional system is adapted. Linking this practice with the broader Babylonian world, namely the seed system versus the reed system, she draws from Baker (2011), who suggests that the reed system was for urban real estate and the seed system was for agricultural land. As such, she suggests that the āšipus of Achaemenid Uruk, the ones within this household, were “highly interested in quantifying urban real estate and agricultural land” (126). Thus, the metrological tablets and their bridging an old system with the new are a “pragmatic tentative updating [of] ancient methods in order to improve methods of evaluation of surfaces” (126).

In Chapter Four, John Steele analyzes the astronomical activity in the house, trying to understand the role of the astronomical archive and the degree to which the archives reflect practice texts as opposed to reference texts. He concludes that there were at least three periods of astronomical activity: the middle of the Achaemenid period, the end of the Achaemenid period, and the early Seleucid period. He provides a wide range of observations on each period of occupation. Moreover, by comparing the tablets with those in Babylon and the Rēš temple, he concludes that practice of astronomy was significantly less than either Babylon or the Rēš temple.

In Chapter Five, Hermann Hunger discusses 60 Late Babylonian texts from Uruk and their relation to texts from Babylon. First, Hunger describes how astronomical tablets reflect a social link between Uruk and Babylon in the Late Babylonian period through Seleucid era, drawing from onomastica, quotations, links between Iqīshâ and the Rēš Temple, and the relative safety of Uruk families who did not revolt against Xerxes. Second, he discusses the presence of Enūma Anu Enlil commentaries and tablets and how they compare with those at Babylon (i.e., Tablet VIII comments from Babylon start a new line with each omen, whereas the Uruk tablet is written continuously). Beyond Enūma Anu Enlil, he turns to newer forms of astrology indicative of links between Uruk and Babylon: Zodiac texts (TU 14, SpTU 2, 43, and LBAT 1600). Third, he addresses a variety of astrological tablets unique to Uruk. He concludes that the picture of Late Babylonian astrology at Uruk is haphazard and demonstrates that Uruk scholars were creative, though there are some links to Babylon.

In Chapter Six, Mathieu Ossendrijver compiles and investigates mathematics in the Rēš Temple. After analysis of the three mathematical tablets, he explores possible links between the temple and libraries at Uruk. First, Ossendrijver describes the find spots of the mathematical tablets from the Rēš Temple, noting the possibility that the library may have consisted of different physical libraries. Additionally, due to space limitations, he focuses primarily three mathematical texts, studying the others briefly. Second, in discussing AO 6456, using a triaxial index grid, he highlights a wide range of computational errors which confirm Neugebauer’s proposal that the reciprocal analysis uses the sieve method. Turning to other Late Babylonian tablets, he indicates no dependence between AO 6456 and other tablets.  Third, he analyzes VAT 7848, providing a new rendering and commentary of the text. Fourth, he analyzes U 91 + W 169, concluding that it was used “as an aid for multiplying long regular numbers in the context of scholarly mathematics” (212). Fourth, he highlights links between VAT 7848 and AO 6456 and other tablets from Rēš, such as their similar mathematical activities and colophons. He concludes that while the scholars of the Rēš pursued mathematics, they were equally interested in astral sciences. Additionally, while some tablets at Uruk are unique, the similarities are strong enough to imply “a prolonged and rather intensive transfer of knowledge between both cities” regarding mathematics, “as has been argued for the astral sciences” (215). Still, as he notes, the role scholarly mathematics played in the Late Babylonian period is unclear.

In Chapter Seven, Julia Krul argues that “the pre-eminence of astrology and astronomy in Urukean… scholarship led to changes in cultic worship and religious thought” (220). First, she highlights that the intellectual community at Uruk consisted a network of interconnected families who did celestial sciences and worked in the temple as āšipu. Notably, she includes Anu-uballiṭ in the mix because (a) he was connected to a major renovation of the Urukean temple, (b) he reorganized the cultic system, and (c) his family was linked to Uruk intellectuals who were āšipus. Second, regarding tablets written by scholars and priests, she shows how scholars made intellectual connections between the starts and their theologies, combining cultic worship with astrological views. Third, drawing from TU 38 and TU 41, she shows that Seleucid era Uruk rituals texts reveal a relationship between celestial sciences and ritual. Fourth, while recognizing Rochberg’s arguments that “astral religion” never existed in Mesopotamia, she suggests that Hellenistic Uruk is a unique case where astral duties are incorporated into the temple cult, though she doubts whether or not “astral religion” is the proper term. She further substantiates the impact of celestial sciences on rituals by showing how the solstice became a central ritual in the Babylon-Borsippa area. At base, then, Hellenistic priest-scholars of Uruk developed a theological frame that increased Anu’s astral dimensions by providing deities new astral attributes, adding solstice rituals, aligning rituals with the zodiac, and directly worshipping planets, the sun, and the moon.

Paul-Alain Beaulieu explores interactions of Greek and Babylonian thought based on MLC 1866 and MLC 1890 in Chapter Eight. Highlighting the similarities between LÚ, HUN, LU, and UDU, he argues that MLC 1866 attests to the shift from the “Hired Man” sign to the “Sheep,” which occurred at the beginning of the Hellenistic period. The evidence for direction of influence, though, is unclear and could have occurred in both directions. Turning to MLC 1890 and Pythagorean Cosmology, he traces the origins of Anduruna and its developments, noting that “at each state… Anduruna always kept its fundamental aspect as the original, undifferentiated cosmic centre” (246). So, with such a complex history and etymology, he concludes that it probably carried multiple meanings. Its use in MLC 1890, Beaulieu suggests, was primarily “to present Antu as universal goddess and all-encompassing cosmic location” (248). Likewise, the sun was also identified with Anduruna and Antu with the sun. The semantic use of Anduruna with Antu, though, is unprecedented in traditional material. The cosmos, though, is akin to the Pythagorean cosmology which views the center sphere as a hearth, which is in the semantic range of Anduruna. So, “the central fire, the hearth, which stands in the middle of the Pythagorean cosmos, finds a reflection in the sun of MLC 1890 which is identified with Anduruna, the unformed universe of the cuneiform tradition” (250). Other Greek authors support this when equating the hearth with “the mother of gods,” Rhea paralleling Antu in terms of her centrality at the center of the universe. Though unclear which direction influence flowed, he at least concludes “that specific elements of cosmological and mythical imagery, perhaps certain concepts as well, travelled from one world to the other, and possibly in both directions” (251). So, at base, this article looks “beyond the linguistic and cultural expressions of written corpora on both sides, and finds points of commonality, intersections where it is possible that intellectuals reformulated elements of their traditions to harmonize them with ideas developed in other cultural contexts” (252). He does this through MLC 1866, MLC 1890, and various Greek texts.

In Chapter Nine, Alexander Jones looks primarily at Greek texts in order to describe how Uruk was understood in the Greco-Roman world. Because the Greek term for Uruk (Orchoe) occurs so rarely, he describes astrological geography of the Greco-Roman world—namely, how “particular characteristics of each people” is “caused by the linkages between celestial entities and terrestrial region” (260)—and where Uruk fits in the system. In doing so, he shows that Uruk people are characterized as sincere, benevolent lovers of astral sciences. Moreover, Mesopotamians doing astral sciences, he shows, were comparable to other philosophic parties, such as Stoics, Epicureans, and Peripatetics. To demonstrate that Uruk astrologers were perceived as a distinct philosophical sect with distinct views on technical questions, he describes P.Oxy. astr. 4139.

Scholars and Scholarship in Late Babylonian Uruk is a well curated volume with a wide range of studies on scholasticism at Uruk. Particularly notable is Proust and Steele’s introduction in Chapter One, inasmuch as it provides a helpful overview of Late Babylonian scholasticism in Uruk. The overview would be helpful in a Near Eastern course on scholasticism, scholarly archives, and, of course, Late Babylonian Uruk. Also notable is Julia Krul’s analysis about how Hellenistic Babylonian scholarship influenced both scholasticism and ritual. Put another way, she shows that our categories of “scholasticism” as opposed to “religion” may sometimes prevent us from precisely and accurate understanding Late Babylonian Uruk. Put another way, her contribution shows that the secondary categories overlap in many cases.

For scholars who are in religious and biblical studies, this volume correlates significantly with certain subjects. The volume is a good supplement to scholars studying ancient Jewish science in Second Temple Literature. I think of Jonathan Ben-Dov and Seth Sanders’ (eds.) Ancient Jewish Sciences and the History of Knowledge in Second Temple Literature (2014). Equally important, of course, is Geller’s (2017) review article of the volume, wherein he notes that the contributors never confront the issue of “religion” versus “science” head-on. Conversation between Chapter Seven of Scholars and Scholarship and scholars of ancient Jewish science may provide some interesting correlates and lead to some conclusions about the relationship between science and religion as it concerns ancient sciences throughout the ancient world.

Additionally, Paul-Alain Beaulieu’s linking MLC 1866 and 1890 with cosmological and mythical speculation attributed to the Pythagorean school—namely, evidence for interactions between the intellectual worlds of Babylonia and Greece—is notable for scholars exploring connections between the Judean and Babylonian worlds. If, as Beaulieu argues, MLC 1866 and 1890 are evidence of influence between Greek and Babylonian scholasticism, then it is an important addition to scholars exploring links between early Jewish texts and texts from Greece or Babylonia. For, if Greek and Babylonian scholars are influences each other from such a great distance, it is more probable that Judean scholars were influenced by the respective groups.

Finally, a footnote in Proust’s contribution carries significance for scholars exploring the transmission of Babylonian texts to Judea. Discussing a Late Babylonian mathematical collection, a footnote mentions an important detail about Aramaic texts: “Jens Høyrup suggested that the Late Babylonian metrological tables may result from copies of Aramaic texts written from right to left (personal communication)” (103n26). Though obviously conjecture, the link between Late Babylonian metrology and Aramaic is important. I recall Sanders’ argument that Judean and Babylonian scribes were linked via Aramaic through “the long-standing practice of translating a wide range of documentary texts and at least two rhetorically and literarily complex genres of text, royal memorials and treaty-curse rituals” (2017: 193). Though linking a hypothetical Late Babylonian Aramaic metrological text with the cuneiform Late Babylonian metrological tablet is highly conjectural, it would provide another means of transmission by which Judean scribes may have learned about Babylonian sciences. This suggestion is highly conjectural; however, if Proust or Høyrup further substantiate the hypothesis of an Aramaic translation of the metrological tablet, it would provide substantiate Sanders’ claims for literary transmission, albeit in a minor way.

Lacking, though, was a synthesis of all analyses. Discussions of Late Babylonian Uruk all touch upon the āšipu. Because the analysis of āšipus is often synchronized instead of recognizing the diachronic diversity and changes, the editors would have made an important contribution by synthesizing the information in the volume in order to create a short chapter on āšipus in Late Babylonian Uruk. Similar syntheses would have been helpful regarding cultural imports, as most of the authors discuss importing and exporting traditions or texts to and from Uruk. By synthesizing all analyses in the volume regarding this subject, it may serve as a helpful way to objectively and broadly characterize key aspects of Late Babylonian Uruk.

At base, though a technical book of which many may only read one or two chapters, Scholars and Scholarship in Late Babylonian Uruk is a wonderful contribution to the exact sciences and study of Late Babylonian Uruk. While all contributions are focused on exact sciences in the ancient world, there is enough diversity in the volume that there is an article for every reader within and outside of Assyriology.




Ben-Dov, Jonathan and Seth Sanders. Eds. 2014. Ancient Jewish Science and the History of Knowledge in Second Temple Literature. New York: New York University Press and Institute for the Study of the Ancient World.

Geller, Mark. “Debunking Ancient Jewish Science.” Journal of the American Oriental Society 137 (2): 393–400.

Sanders, Seth. 2017. From Adapa to Enoch. Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck.

Review: “Becoming Diaspora Jews: Behind the Story of Elephantine” by Karel van der Toorn

BecomingDiasporaJewsKarel van der Toorn. 2019. Becoming Diaspora Jews: Behind the Story of Elephantine. Yale: Yale University Press.

In the beginning of the 20th century, the Elephantine Papyri were revealed to the world. Unsurprisingly, the texts were popular because they reflected the lives of Jews in exile. As early scholars expressed, they were texts from the people of the bible. Since then, scholarship on Amherst Papyrus 63 provided opportunities to revise and reconsider traditional narratives about Elephantine. A few years after van der Toorn’s critical edition of Amherst Papyrus 63, his newest book reconsiders the Elephantine community’s relation with Arameans, their origins, and the history. After the book’s summary, I will note various places where van der Toorn’s analysis could be developed, providing further considerations that build off van der Toorn’s work.

Chapter One reviews how the papyri were discovered, scholarly trends of the 20th century, and terminological choices, especially Jew versus Judean and diaspora. Notably, readers will find van der Toorn’s narrative remarkably similar to contemporary, questionable actions by the Museum of the Bible and its affiliates.

Chapter Two describes the Aramean heritage of Jews at Elephantine. First, he convincingly hypothesizes that Aramaic was present in the early history of the community. Second, he highlights the “Sayings of Ahiqar” as indicative of a link between the Aramean diaspora and the Jewish community at Elephantine. Third, on account of a papyri instructing shekels to be divided between Yaho and two Aramean gods, there is strong reason to conclude Elephantine Jews were Aramean. Fourth, drawing from onomastics and titles, he argues that the reference to Elephantine Jews as “Jews of Elephantine,” “Aramean,” and “Syenian” indicate they were viewed administratively as Arameans. Similar patterns are evident for the Iranian community. Simply put, “the Jews were technically Arameans but, in reality, Judeans.”

Chapter Three focuses on the Aramean diaspora in Egypt to figure out how Jews at Elephantine were connected to Arameans. After briefly reviewing the terms Aramaic, Aram, and Aramean, he analyzes onomastic data to suggest two Aramean groups: a Bethel group from central Syria and a Babylonian Nabu group. Having laid out these ethnic boundaries, van der Toorn highlights social links and contact between Jews of Elephantine and Syenian Arameans via mundane social interactions and military activity. Notably, his analysis clearly shows that the traditional hypothesis of Jews adopting Aramean culture is implausible.

Chapter Four attempts to identify their origins and explain practices by analyzing Papyrus Amherst 63. Describing the three sections of the text (Syrian, Samarian, and Babylonian), he draws from Ps 20, New Years references, and content throughout the papyri in order to suggest the text was compiled in the 7th century BCE. He suggests that, with the disintegration of the Neo-Assyrian empire at the end of the 7th century, Samarian Arameans began speaking Aramaic when they were becoming the garrison of Syene.

In Chapter Five, van der Toorn explores two aspects of Elephantine in light of the previous discussion: Elephantine Jews as a military colony and as a religion. First, van der Toorn contextualizes the colony, highlighting how Egypt and Persia had been hiring mercenaries since the Samarian migration to Egypt. After discussing relevant textual evidence, he concludes that individuals did not receive wages; rather, battalions held land as possessions, akin to the Babylonian land-for-service system. Due to peace on the southern front, they were relatively inactive, allowing them to work fields and develop wealth. Second, he describes religious practice at Elephantine. The temple, he argues, was not unique, providing examples of Jewish temples at Edfu and Leontopolis. In any case, in functioned as the material guarantee of Yaho’s presence. Socially, the boundary between religious and political, or sacred and secular, was porous, providing various examples of individuals who functioned as political or religious leaders depending on their social context. Finally, drawing from Papyrus Amherst 63 and the Elephantine Papyri, he offers a discussion of the gods of the Elephantine Jews: Yaho, Eshem-Bethel, Herem-Bethel, and the Queen of Heaven. Strong practices and beliefs at Elephantine show that—contrary to Babylonian Jews—there was no desire to return “home.”

In Chapter Six, van der Toorn details three phases leading to Samarian Arameans being identified as Jewish. Early on, “Judean” was a collective term for Samarians and Jews, evident in mixture of Judeans and Samarians together moving to Egypt in the 7th century without conflict, the relation between Jews at Elephantine and other places throughout Egypt, and Persian perception of “Judean,” a geographic term, into the broader notion of a Judean diaspora. For the second phase, van der Toorn highlights Hananyah’s “Passover” letter because the “salutation reflects a self-conscious Jewish identity” (122), an identity possibly creating a sort of “religious nationalism” and fueling conflict between Egyptians and Judeans. Third, political and social conflict between the Jewish Elephantines and Egyptians—namely, Egyptians destroying the Jewish temple in 410 BCE and Persia’s sympathy for them by 407 BCE—cemented Elephantine identity as Jewish, as letters from the period show their communications with Judah and Samaria. The event cementing their identity, van der Toorn argues, was not necessarily religious violence; rather, by examining social conflict at Elephantine prior to the temple’s destruction in 410 BCE, he clearly demonstrates that the conflict was more about personal gain and political choice than anti-Jewish sentiments.

The book concludes with a short epilogue and a full translation of Papyrus Amherst 63.

As a whole, van der Toorn’s analysis of Elephantine, use of onomastica, and inclusion of Papyrus Amherst 63 are extraordinary. Rather than reading like an academic monograph, Becoming Diaspora Jews is a story. It is engaging, flows relatively well, makes strong arguments, and is eye-opening. That said, rather than listing the exquisite aspects of the volume, which are too numerous to list here, I will shift into discussing the finer points of his volume, considering how different perspective could enrich our understanding of the Elephantine Jews.

First, I propose that his perspective on the Persians’ first interactions with Judeans should be more specific. He claims that “the Persians’ first encounter with these Judeans was with the community of Judean exiles in Babylonia” (120). This statement is too ambiguous. Is he claiming that the Persians met the Judeans as they were working in the fields of Babylonia or that Persians knew of Judeans via other means? The details of van der Toorn’s statement, I think, are pertinent. If Persians knew about Judeans and Al-Yahudu, the Judean community in Babylonia, via personal interactions with the community, the implication is that Persian government developed an approach to ethnic groups independent of Babylonian approaches to Judeans.

Records, though, indicate otherwise: “The Achaemenid administration inherited the administrative system and the system of taxation from their Neo-Babylonian predecessors in Babylonia” (Kleber 2015). That is, Persians transferred Neo-Babylonian methods of administration to themselves. And though conjectural, it is more likely that Persians first learned of Judeans through Neo-Babylonian documents. If this is the case, it also provides insight into how the Neo-Babylonian administration approached the Judeans of Al-Yahudu, many of whom were Samarian. Therefore, van der Toorn’s comment that the geographical term “Judean” came to be an ethnic term due to the Persian perception of the Judean diaspora should be pushed back to at least the Neo-Babylonian period. Namely, Judean was an ethnicity because the Persian administration inherited them from the Babylonians as an ethnicity.

Second, van der Toorn regularly notes the three deities present in Yaho’s temple, at least according to the papyrus: Yaho, Eshem-Bethel, and Anat-Bethel. I wonder, though, how the unique identity of Jews at Elephantine could be further defined by viewing the deities in the temple as a divine triad. That is, how do perspectives change when we view the three deities as reflective of the “structural element of Egyptian religion” to describe triads of deities (te Velde 1971, 80)? Though conjectural, it is plausible that the Judean divine triad is indicative of how they adapted to their social and religious environment.

In a similar vein, social network analysis of Jewish Elephantine deities could be used to explore social bonds between various groups in Egypt, drawing from both texts and onomastica. For example, Alstola et al. (2019) uses a computational social networking model in order to analyze the role of Ashur in the Mesopotamian pantheon during the 1st millennium. Through mapping a social network of deities throughout Egypt during the Persian periods, it may provide further socio-religious explanations for the conflict between the Egyptians and Jews [1]. That is, while van der Toorn is undoubtedly correct that events prior to the destruction of the Jewish temple at Elephantine are indicative that Egyptians did not act out of anti-Jewish sentiment, the degree to which Elephantine deities among the Elephantine community can be linked to other groups throughout the region may provide a more nuanced explanation of the events, an explanation which takes into account the degree to which social networks—themselves shaped by religious ritual, practice, and belief—created space for conflict to occur.

Another method to explore the social links between Jews at Elephantine and the region is through archaeological developments. As Müller (2016) highlights, Elephantine is settled throughout the first millennium; however, Demotic and Aramaic documentary texts only appear in the second half of the millennium. That said, it may be helpful to bring into the conversation how the archaeological sites—like the fortress—developing during the 1st millennium (e.g., von Pilgrim 2010) [2]. Though beyond the aim and method of van der Toorn, perhaps future analysis of Elephantine will further explore this issue.

In conclusion, van der Toorn’s Becoming Diaspora Jews: Behind the Story of Elephantine is an excellent and needed historical re-construction of the Jewish Elephantine community. More importantly, he draws into the conversation Papyrus Amherst 63, providing innovative and important insights to the Jews at Elephantine prior to their being in Egypt. Frankly, Becoming Diaspora Jews is a must-read for students and scholars of Jewish studies (broadly construed) and Egyptian history.

[1] As Wilkinson (2000) comments, “Interaction between cults also extended beyond the religious to the economic and social spheres. Though these latter areas are more difficiult to document, it seems that interaction was to the advantage of most temples, as smaller cults might profit from the prestige and power of larger ones and the larger cults could often accept their smaller neighbours as part of their own extended theological cosmos rather than as competitors” (85).

[2] As I do not have access to a library, the degree to which Rohrmoser (2014) discusses this subject is unclear. The closest access I had to it was a review by Cornell (2017).




Alstola, Tero, Shana Zaia, Aleksi Sahala, Heidi Jauhiainen, Saana Svärd, and Krister Lindén. 2019. “Ashur and His Friends: A Statistical Analysis of Neo-Assyrian Texts.” Journal of Cuneiform Studies 71: 159–180.

Cornell, Collin. 2017. Review of Götter, Tempel und Kult der Judäo-Aramäer von Elephantine: archäologische und schriftliche Zeugnisse aus dem perserzeitlichen Ägypten by Angela Rohrmoser. Scandanavian Journal of the Old Testament 31 (1): 157–159.

Kleber, Kristin. 2015. “Taxation in the Achaemenid Empire.” In Oxford Handbooks Online. Oxford: Oxford University Press. (Accessed December 10, 2019.)

Müller, Matthias. 2016. “Among the Priests of Elephantine Island: Elephantine Island Seen from Egyptian Sources.” Die Welt des Orients 46 (2): 213–243.

von Pilgrim, Cornelius. 2010. “Elephantine – (Festrungs-)Stadt am Ersten Katarakt.” In Cities and Urbanism in Ancient Egypt, edited by Manfred Bietak, Ernst Czerny, and Irene Forstner-Müller, 257–270. Wien: Österreichische Akademia der Wissenschaften.

Rohrmoser, Angela. 2014. Götter, Tempel und Kult der Judäo-Aramäer von Elephantine: archäologische und schriftliche Zeugnisse aus dem perserzeitlichen Ägypten. Münster: Ugarit-Verlag.

te Velde, H. 1971. “Some Remarks on the Structure of Egyptian Divine Triads.” The Journal of Egyptian Archaeology 57: 80–86.

Wilkinson, Richard H. 2000. The Complete Temples of Ancient Egypt. New York: Thames & Hudson.


Review: “Inhabiting the Promised Land: Exploring the Complex Relationship between Archaeology and Ancient Israel as Depicted in the Bible” by Margreet L. Steiner

9781789253306Margreet L. Steiner. Inhabiting the Promised Land: Exploring the Complex Relationship between Archaeology and Ancient Israel as Depicted in the Bible. Philadelphia: Oxbow, 2019.

A search on Google for “ancient Israel archaeology” yields 13.6 million results in 0.72 seconds. With so many resources readily available—many of which are questionable—it is pertinent that scholars more intentionally engage with the public. If scholars do not engage with the public in a reasonable and understandable way, they should not complain about misunderstanding or lack of knowledge. While some scholars use the internet, quite a few publish books as a means of engaging with the public. Margreet Steiner’s Inhabiting the Promised Land seeks to engage with the public.

Inhabiting the Promised Land was originally published in 2015 in Dutch (Op zoek naar… De gecompliceerde relatie tussen archeologie en de Bijbel). Oriented toward the public, the volume aims to characterize the relationship between archaeology and biblical texts in a digestible and understandable way. And as an archaeologist with extensive field experience, Steiner is undoubtedly qualified (click here for Margreet Steiner’s website and CV).

Broadly construed, the book is divided into three sections: introduction; searches for various figures based on biblical chronology; and discussion of the temple in Jerusalem and Asherah. In what follows, I will briefly summarize each chapter. Subsequently, I will reflect on the strengths and weaknesses of the volume.

In Chapter One, Steiner defines key terms (e.g., archaeology, various regions, etc.), compares biblical archaeology with archaeology of the Levant, and outlines primary source materials for the history of Israel (archaeology, inscriptions, and the bible). In doing so, she also describes tradition and redaction criticism in biblical scholarship.

Chapter Two describes biblical stories of Abraham and his descendants, briefly summarizing Canaanites outside of the bible (language, religion, and ethnicity). After juxtaposing Abrahamic and Canaanite traditions, she concludes that Abrahamic traditions cannot confidently be placed into a time period. Subsequently, after describing the exodus account and the lack of non-biblical evidence, she describes the scholarly opinions about sitz im Leben: viewing the biblical texts as reflecting historical reality (maximalists), minimalists, Finkelsteins argument that texts were written in the 7th century BCE as a pious pre-history, and Liverani’s argument for an invented history after exile. Though she doesn’t say it directly, she basically implies that we don’t really know when the Abraham traditions were written, even suggesting that dismissing the patriarchal narratives and the conquest of the promised land as non-historical is “a bit extreme.”

In Chapter Three, she engages the relationship between the bible and archaeology regarding the Saul and the judges, describing various archaeological aspects: Jericho, early Iron Age villages, the Gezer Calendar, and the Merneptah stele. Presented with this information, she describes the four well-known ways about how Israel arose: peaceful infiltration, nomads, revolutions, and mixed multitude.  Though she implies that a mixed multitude is the most reasonable option, she concludes with a simple comment that the “beginning of the biblical Israel is still shrouded in clouds.”

In Chapter Four, Steiner considers the relationship between Goliath and Philistia as represented in biblical texts and archaeology. After broadly outlining Philistines as the Sea People, biblical representations, and archaeology, she describes three phases of Philistine migration based on pottery. Next, she describes Philistine culture via religion and iron use. Moreover, she briefly debunks an inscription that many viewed as evidence for Goliath and, by proxy, David. Thus, Steiner concludes that, while the Philistines migrated from Cyprus and the Aegean to the Levant during the 12th century BCE, they remain shrouded in mystery.

Chapter Five explores David and Solomon outside of biblical texts, discussing the Tel Dan inscription, debated subjects like the stables at Megiddo, the problem of ‘discovering’ King David’s palace in 2005, and Khirbet Qeiyafa. For this period, Steiner makes clear that whereas biblical texts indicate a Golden Age, the stories of David and Solomon appear to be fictive when put into conversation with archaeology.

Chapter Six explores Jezebel and the house of Omri, describing the biblical narrative, various extra-biblical sources, and Omride building projects. After discussing these materials, she highlights that (1) Jezebel is not attested in archaeology and that (2) the House of Omri, especially Ahab, was historically a mighty king, not merely a fictive construction.

Chapter Seven discusses Mesha of Moab, engaging with the Mesha inscription, Moab in the bible, and Moabite religion. She also describes the adventure of how the Moab inscription was discovered and recovered. She concludes that king Mesha—though represented distinctly in biblical texts—did exist as a power competing with Israel.

Chapter Eight turns to Jehoiachin and the exile, examining Neo-Babylonian records, biblical texts, and the Yehuda texts from Babylon. As such, she clearly demonstrates the presence of Judean exiles in Babylon, though admits the picture is somewhat hazy. Subsequently, she provides a brief discussion on how Judean’s seeing a ziggurat in Babylon may have influenced the biblical story about the tower of Babel.

Chapter Nine focuses on Balaam from the Deir Alla plasters in Jordan. After describing the story of discovering the text and the archaeological context, she provides Hoftijizer and Van der Kooij’s translation (1976) and briefly discusses it. She then contrasts the Deir Alla plasters with Balaam in biblical texts. She suggests that editors of the Hebrew Bible knew of Balaam traditions and incorporated them into their narratives.

Chapter Ten shifts to a contentious topic in Levantine archaeology and biblical studies: the goddess Asherah. After describing evidence for Asherah in biblical texts, Astarte, the Queen of Heaven, Kuntillet Ajrud, Khirbet el-Qom, cult stands, and figurines, she concludes that it is not yet clear how or if she was venerated in ancient Israel.

Chapter Eleven concludes with discussion of the temple in Jerusalem, engaging a broad range of data: temples in the Levant and Egypt, a history of the Jerusalem temple and Solomon’s temple according to biblical texts, the ivory pomegranate forgery, Solomon’s temple as a myth, and Herod’s temple. Though unrelated to Solomon’s temple, she subsequently describes various forged inscriptions through stories.

As a volume engaging with the pubic, Steiner’s work is a welcome addition. Covering such a broad range of archaeological data—from Late Bronze age archaeology up to the destruction of Jerusalem—and biblical texts is challenging and admirable, a feat few successfully attempt. In particular, I appreciate how she encourages readers to push against news heralding that archaeology has confirmed the bible. Instead, she encourages readers to acknowledge that the relationship between archaeology and biblical texts is complex. As such, folks should not be too quick to assert that certain archaeological finds support biblical texts.

Regarding her writing style, she writes in a conversational tone. I suspect this may be because it was originally published in Dutch. Presumably, the mood, flow, and tone of the text is culturally inflected. This is, however, a weakness of the volume depending on the reader. Personally, I enjoy German style writing more—sharp, concise, to the point, and not flowery. Her book is not that style. That said, it isn’t a problem so much as personal preference and a note to potential readers.

A few issues are worth addressing. Broadly construed, my criticisms have to do with the degree to which general audiences can interacted with Inhabiting the Promised Land, representation of biblical scholarship, and the books organization.

First, while the book is sometime understandable, she regularly uses language that the average reader does not understand. For example, when discussing the Philistines, she uses technical terms:  for pottery (e.g., monochrome, bichrome, Cypriot pottery, and Mycenaean pottery), Semitic root (most people don’t know what a ‘root’ is), and European Urnfield Culture (I only learned about this recently). Though only a small selection, it suffices to demonstrate that Steiner falls into a trap most academic writer fall into when writing for the public: they forget that while much of their language register is second nature, and the audience has no context or understanding of certain terms and ideas.

Second, Steiner’s volume is disconnected from biblical scholarship. From the outset, she notes that she is not a biblical scholar but an archaeologist of the Levant. As such, her description of the bible and how scholars us it for history is limited, discussing only redaction criticism and tradition criticism. Likewise, in briefly describing the book most relevant for Israel’s history, she only includes the Torah, early prophets (Joshua, Judges, Samuel, and Kings), and the “historical books” (Chronicles, Ezra, and Nehemiah). By excluding a vast portion of biblical texts, she cuts out pertinent literature, such as Jeremiah and Isaiah. In other words, her investigation into the history of ancient Israel and Judah is limited from the outset because she ignores evidence central to reconstructing the history of Israel and Judah.

Similarly, while she defines the goals and questions for Levantine archaeologists, she does not detail the goals and questions of biblical scholars. Undoubtedly, this is a difficult to do due to diversity in the field. Even so, more thorough treatment of biblical scholarly aims would have contributed positively to her overall presentation of the bible and archaeology. It would have also (potentially) impacted some of her conclusions and discussion.

Third, the book’s organization is questionable. Chapters one through eight are arranged by biblical time period; chapters nine through eleven are topical, addressing Balaam, Asherah, and the temple of Jerusalem. The three topical chapters, though, are pertinent for the evidence, archaeological and textual, in chapters one through eight. Moreover, by arranging the chapters by “biblical chronology,” even though she admits that the chronology isn’t always supported by strong archaeological evidence, she does little to provide a new framework to general audiences for thinking about Israelite and Judean history. Had the book been organized as a historical construction of ancient Israel and Judah based primarily on archaeology and then put into conversation with biblical texts, it would have been more helpful by providing a new framework for thinking about history in the region.

Even with these criticism, Margreet Steiner’s Inhabiting the Promised Land is a welcome addition to the small, yet growing, corpus of books related to Levantine archaeology and biblical studies that are written for general audiences. And though the book is imperfect and, in some cases, inaccessible to general audiences, few scholars attempt to engage the public. For this reason, I personally appreciate Steiner’s work and look forward to see how she continues engaging the public.

Review: “A Corpus of Ammonite Inscriptions, Second Edition” by Walter E. Aufrecht

978-1-57506-344-7md_294Walter E. Aufrecht. A Corpus of Ammonite Inscriptions, Second Edition. University Park: Eisenbrauns, 2019, pp. 648. 

To state the obvious, A Corpus of Ammonite Inscriptions (henceforth CAI) remedies flaws from the 1st edition. In the preface, Aufrecht highlights some notable changes. First, five inscriptions from the 1st edition were re-numbered: 1→1b; 30a→30b; 54a→54b; 78a→78b; and 148→183. Second, the 2nd edition include new and reclassified inscriptions, including three which are not included in the glossary or appendices (CAI 246, 247, and 248).

The introduction initially lays out general notes. First, he aims to provide “a complete biography for each inscription” (2). Second, he aims to describe the physical location of all ostracon. Third, the 2nd edition includes new photographs, drawings, impressions, and bibliographic material. Fourth, the glossary is not of the Ammonite language—some words in texts may not be Ammonite.

Subsequently, Aufrecht addresses his five criteria for identifying Ammonite texts: provenance, language, onomastics, paleography, and iconography. First, because provenance depends on non-universal, unstable standards, he only refer to Israelite/Judean/Sidonian/Byblian “when citing their use by another author” (3). Second, CAI does not present the Ammonite phonological system; rather, he selects the earliest possible word forms. Notably, he vocalizes /ā/ as [о̄], acknowledging the south Canaanite vocalic shift in Ammonite. Third, concerning onomastics, he suggests that the theophoric element and hypocoristica “provide information on Ammonite religion” (7). Additionally, he translates all hypocoristica as ‘Il. Fourth, regarding paleography, Aufrecht explicitly provides no list of inscriptions by date of writing because scholars propose so many dating schemes. Fifth, regarding iconography, though a pertinent matter for Ammonite religious and social history, Aufrecht offers no analysis, instead directing readers to Collon (1990) and Avigad and Sass (1997). Finally, he excludes the Dayr Alla plaster texts because they have been discussed so extensively in previous publications.

After presenting the corpus, Aufrecht provides multiple appendices: matres lectionis, texts he identifies as Ammonite, onomastic features, iconography, alphabet seals, non-seal inscriptions, numerals, dissertations, and a glossary. As previously mentioned, readers should always be aware that CAI 246, 247, and 248 are not in the glossary or appendices.

Unsurprisingly, the corpus of CAI is replete with updated bibliographic, philological, onomastic, and cultural data. Worth noting, though, is that while Aufrecht provides a clear overview of scholarship around each inscription, he often avoids providing his own perspectives, whether about paleography, onomastics, or anything else. His voice would be a helpful contribution to ongoing debates. Second, beyond the details, a broad overview of the value of CAI would be valuable, succinctly analyzing and synthesizing the 200+ inscriptions regarding history and culture. Unfortunately, this is not present. Third, an appendix regarding seal provenance would be helpful for analyzing the data set.

In terms of methodology, his comment that hypocoristica provide insight into Ammonite religion is true to a degree. The role in extracting religion—whatever he means by that term—from onomasticon must be more closely nuanced, though. Using onomastica as a primary means for describing religion, though, is a skewed and problematic enterprise. For example, though he translates hypocoristica as ‘Il, the approach favors a particular deity among the pantheon. As such, it may skew the data. For understanding Ammonite religion, it would be better not to translate hypocoristica unless clear reasoning and evidence is provided, such as cases where the patronym matches the patronym from another seal.

As for content, I have one comment regarding CAI no. 220. In his review of Deutsch and Lemaire’s Biblical Period Personal Seals in the Shlomo Moussaieff Collection (2000), Puech suggests that what they transliterate as m is doubtable, suggesting instead (2002, 428). Alternatively, though, k is plausible, resulting in the name ‘Ilrak from the root rkk or ‘rk (cf. no. 59a ṣdyrk).

Additionally, the volume has multiple copyediting and typesetting issues, though I do not fault the author for this and only a few of them my cause significant confusion (copyediting and typesetting issues listed below). Even so, CAI 2nd edition is a fine and welcome update and contribution to the ever-developing fields of Levantine, biblical, and Semitic studies.

Copyediting and typesetting issues: “et” should be “ḥet” (32); “lnnyh b” should be “lḥnnyh b”; “et” should be “ḥet” (144); text justification issue (210); missing in transliteration (215); text justification issue (244); missing (262); missing (311); possibly type of “pseudo-script” (347); text justification issue (353); CAI 149, 151, 152, and 160 refer to the wrong photograph (no. 148); “lḥnn” instead of “ḥnn” discussing the personal name ḥnn (no. 162)

*I’d like to express my gratitude to the publisher for providing a review copy in exchange for my honest opinion

Review: Corpus of Middle Babylonian and Middle Assyrian Incantations by Elyze Zomer

Elyze Zomer. A Corpus of Middle Babylonian and Middle Assyrian Incantations. Wiesbaden: Harrassowtiz Verlag, 2018. 470 pp.

Corpus of Middle Babylonian and Middle Assyrian Incantations (henceforth CMBMAI) is a systematic analysis of the MB and MA incantation corpus. Chapter One addresses standard questions and issues: types of incantations, historical setting, previous scholarship, and the scope of the study. Here, two details are central. First, Zomer’s incantation typology is based on paratextual comments (ÉN; KA.INIM.MA; etc.) and distinguishes between incantation prayers and regular prays via paratextual comments (ÉN vs. uninnuteslītuikrubu, etc.). Other incantation prayers are based on recitation in a ritual or medical agenda and incantation prayers with 1st millennium parallels. Second, she excludes non-Mesopotamian, local incantations. As for incantations presented in an edition, she only include particularly relevant texts and previously unedited texts.

In Chapter Two, Zomer classifies all 184 tablets and 336 incantations according to whether they are single/collective, part of a ritual, therapeutic text, diagnostic omina, lexical list, or other. Next, expanding on Wasserman’s (2014) OB text classifications, she divides texts into tablets (with multiple sub-divisions), amulets, cylinder seals, prisms, and cylinders. Though less emphasized, Zomer notes various types of drawings on tablets. Finally she identifies a variety of rubrics for incantations.

In Chapter Three, Zomer describes the geographical settings and archival contexts for texts, dividing her discussion as texts from the Mesopotamian heartland and texts from peripheral areas.

In Chapter Four, Zomer addresses problems of the social settings of incantations. She establishes magic and medicine as “two complementary strategies in the healing of a patient” (60). Though she draws from the traditionally authoritative works by Ritter (1965), Biggs (1995), Heeßel (2009), and Scurlock (1999), more recent theoretical discussions on magic would be beneficial for her overall presentation. Likewise, though I think she is right to claim that incantations were not really effective and clients/experts would create excuses, this notion should be substantiated via brief comments on cognitive dissonance. Next, she notes how magico-religious texts represent magic experts and how they are represented outside magico-religious texts in the heartland and peripheral regions, the notion of magic experts as scholars, and iconography of magic experts. For the receiving end, namely clients, she identifies public clients and private clients, evidenced in amulets or incantations for domestic spaces. The relation between expert and client is evident in the way incantation texts involve clients. Finally, she describes how incantation texts function for private contexts (burial, foundation deposits, domestic contexts, necklaces), reference work contexts, incantations for curriculum, and texts as spoils for war.

Chapter Five details texts by thematic grouping, bilingual and unilingual incantations, and local scribal influences, wherein she addresses paleography and orthography of provenanced texts.

In Chapter Six, Zomer explores issues of standardization and serialization of Mesopotamian texts and how 2nd millennium Assyrian and Babylonian incantations fit into the picture. First, though Assyriologists sometimes refer to texts as canonical, Zomer uses standardization (following Rochberg-Halton 1984) to highlight the common form without any official edition. This relates to content. On the other hand, serialization refers to the established sequence of tablets of a text. Second, drawing from Esagil-kīn-apli’s colophon on SA.GIG, a colophon of hemerology (KAR 177), and previous scholars, she suggests serialization and standardization began in the Kassite era or Second Isin period. Her suggestion, though fails to consider such colophons as literary constructions. That is to say, colophons are not necessarily historical. Third, she defines essential terms: forerunner, though admittedly a problematic terms, “denotes an earlier stage (i.e. precursor) of a text that was later standardized.” Forerunners may be canonical, “those incantations which show distinct similarities with their counterparts in later standardized series and can be designated as an antecedent version” (180), or non-canonical, “a group of incantations that are thematically-related to later series, but were not incorporated as such” (180). Stock-incantations “denote the interchangeability of incantations between various series” (181) . Finally, she discusses all forerunners from the 2nd millennium BCE.

Chapter Seven offers a selections of text editions. Chapter Eight is a catalogue of all Middle Babylonian and Middle Assyrian incantations.

As a whole, CMBMAI is a welcome addition to scholarship, this being the first comprehensive study of the corpus. Most notably, her attempt to identify and discuss forerunners to ritual-series and compendia is admirable. Additionally, in Chapter Four, wherein she describes the social setting of the incantations, Zomer lays out multiple contexts for them: private, reference works, curriculum, and spoils of war. Such categories are particularly helpful for understand how incantation texts functioned socially.

Even so, a two aspects of the volume raised questions, namely her discussion of standardization (Chapter Six) and magic (Chapter Four). First, Zomer acknowledges problems with terms like ‘canon’ or ‘canonization,’ indicating a preference for the term standardization; however, in order to discuss forerunners, she uses the terms canonical and non-canonical. This discontinuity results in muddled terminology and definitions.

Moreover, Zomer does not establish clear standards for what constitutes a canonical or non-canonical forerunner. As a result, she makes unsubstantiated claims about Akkadian compendia and what constitutes a forerunner, whether canonical or non-canonical. For example, in discussing Sag.gig, she makes the following claim: “As for Emar, the small fragment Emar 732 is clearly concerned with Sag.gig and its incipit recalls Sag.gig I/a, where it is stated that the Sag.gig-demon comes from Ekur, whereas in Emar 732 it is said that the Sag.gig comes from the Netherworld, what can be further read of Emar 732 does not correspond to incantations known from the Sag.gig-series, hence Emar 732 is here considered a non-canonical forerunner” (208). Though she provides surface level reasoning about why Emar 732 is a non-canonical forerunner to the Sag.gig-series, her reasoning is relatively weak and should be further substantiated. Issues similar to this exist, I suggest, primarily because she does not clearly define how to identify what constitutes non-canonical forerunners as opposed to canonical forerunners.

Second, Zomer’s discussion about magic lacks important historical and theoretical considerations. Concerning magic and the division between the āshipūtu and asûtu, she rightly notes the well-known works by Ritter (1965), Stol (1991), Biggs (1995), Scurlock (1995), and Heeßel (2009); however, her perspective on the relationship between magic and medicine, if these terms are even helpful, would be significantly strengthened by more recent theories on magic (see references and discussion in David Frankfurter (ed.) 2019).

Aside from the content, I found multiple typographical errors throughout the volume: missing quotation marks (76) and missing indent (80). Other errors are mainly misplaced commas and similar issues, not worth noting here in detail.

In conclusion, Corpus of Middle Babylonian and Middle Assyrian Incantations is highly recommended, with the caveats of Zomer’s underlying theory concerning magic and the lack of clarity concerning forerunners. As the first comprehensive analyses of Middle Babylonian and Middle Assyrian incantations, it fills an important lacuna within the field of Assyriology.

Review: Kings of Israel (board game)

Overwhelmed by hordes of invading nations – and a series of corrupt kings – the fate of Israel is balanced on a knife’s edge! The Northern Kingdom’s only hope is that a band of prophets can cleanse it of evil and idolatry before the wrath of God does so – permanently.
Kings of Israel is a cooperative game that places two to four players in the role of prophets struggling to save their nation from threats both internal and external. Do you have what it takes to overcome the forces of evil?  Or will you let Israel succumb to its own destruction? – Description of Kings of Israel by Funhill Games

Typically at The Biblical Review, I write books reviews; however, when I came across the board game Kings of Israel, I couldn’t resist writing a review. So, in what follows, I’ll briefly describe rules and goal. Subsequently, I’ll comment on features which I enjoyed, found confusing, and found concerning. On the basis of the preceding, I will suggest that, though a fun and somewhat enjoyable game, it should not be used for any teaching purposes.KingsOfIsrael

Game Play

Kings of Israel (2-4 players) is framed in the time period of the ancient Kingdom of Israel (c. 1050 – 721 BCE). At the beginning and throughout the game, Sin Cubes and Idols are placed on the map. Players win by building a certain number of Altars (depends on number of players). If a Sin Cube or Idol needs to be placed on the board and there are no more, the players lose.

At the beginning of the game, each player receives an ability card, such as Merchant, allowing a player to hold up to eight Resource Cards, or Determined, allowing a player to remove Sin Cubes or Idols after building an altar. After distributing sin on the locations of the map based on cards drawn and receiving a few Resource Cards, the rounds of game play begin. Each round is defined by the reign of a particular king. While Saul, Ish-Bosheth, David, Solomon, and Jehu are considered good kings, the rest are bad kings.

So, if if the king is good, players draw a Blessing Card; however, if the king is bad, players draw a Sin & Punishment Card. Next, the number of Location Cards equal to the number of players are drawn. Players place a Sin Cube onto each location drawn. Third, players take turns moving with four actions: move prophet, preach to Israelite (remove Sin Cubes), destroy an Idol (appears after three Sin Cubes appears at one site), acquire resources, build an altar (where sacrifices can be made in order to clear Sin Cubes at surrounding sites), or give resources to another play. Each player in the round takes four actions. At the end of the round, the Timeline Marker moves down and the next round begins.

Though there are far more nuances in the rules, this is, more or less, the basic game play. In what follows, I’ll further define aspects of the game and provide commentary.

The Good

Overall, Kings of Israel is fun. Because all players must work together, tensions can run high as players try to figure out the most effective strategy for building Altars and ridding the game board of Sin Cubes and Idols. Unsurprisingly, as I played this game with family members, they were forced to address how they communicate with each other when tensions and stakes are extremely high (this is sort of a joke, though they did get into a really heated discussion).

Additionally, the game is remarkably similar to Pandemic, if not essentially the same. The only difference is that whereas in Pandemic players fight disease, in Kings of Israel players fight sin. I put this in the “Good” category mainly because, at least for folks who play Pandemic, it is a very easy learning curve.

The Confusing

When we first played, the instructions were incredibly confusing, seemingly haphazardly put together. In retrospect, the instruction booklet is organized by the four phases for each game round (King’s Godliness Phase; Sin Increase Phase; Prophets Work Phase; and End of Round Phase). As such, this may be a problem of formatting the text, as all of the headings look exactly the same and show no clear distinctions.

Additionally, the instruction booklet is generally imprecise. So, figuring out how to set-up and play was particularly difficult.

The Concerning

Admittedly, I was interested in this game for pedagogical purposes, wondering how I could use boards games on ancient Israel and Judah to more effectively teach in a classroom. Prior to playing, I hoped that Kings of Israel would do its best to capture notions of sin, altars, and prophets as evident in the Hebrew Bible, things which I am concerned with as an academic. That said, while the game is fun, Kings of Israel has the potential to continue asserting imprecise and inaccurate perceptions of sin, altars, prophets, and the Hebrew Bible overall.

First, the game presents prophets as eliminating sin via altars. Both historically and within the Hebrew Bible, this is not accurate. Priests, and possibly kings, would have been the primary agents in building altars and performing sacrificial rituals. As such, conflating the social actions of prophets and priests muddles the historical and textual reality. Of course, occasionally prophets make sacrifices, as is one of the goals in this game. In any case, this game still flattens the historical and textual reality.

Second, for attaining an rudimentary understanding kings in ancient Israel, the game is misguiding. In terms of the textual representation of kings, the game is off-base to a degree. In light of First and Second Samuel, neither Saul, David, or Solomon ended their kingly careers very well, though they did start off on a good foot. As such, it is questionable why the game creators chose to make Saul, Ish-Bosheth, David, and Solomon the “good” kings. My concern is that kids and adults playing this game will transpose the presentation of kingship in Kings of Israel onto their readings of biblical texts, resulting in the distortion of texts like First and Second Samuel.

Third, though I previously mentioned this in “The Good,” Kings of Israel is essentially made in the image of Pandemic. Though less concerning than a nuisance, the creators could have should have developed the game in ways that would more clearly distinguish it from Pandemic.

Final Thoughts

Kings of Israel is an enjoyable game, especially with people who are competitive. As such, I recommend the game. At the same time, due to the representation of the Biblical texts and the social functions of prophets, I would avoid using Kings of Israel for any teaching purposes. The only case where it may be advantageous is in a course or class about the reception of Biblical texts in the modern world. Undoubtedly, playing Kings of Israel to identify modern reception of Biblical texts and ideas, continuities, discontinuities, and transformations, would be a productive exercise. Thus, at base, while the game is enjoyable for its own sake apart from its representation of texts or history, its distance from textual, biblical representations make it pedagogically only valuable for investigating reception history.

NOTE: My wife commenting on the artwork: “All the prophets are super ripped, old men. And their hair flies up like Jimmy Neutron. And fire can burn behind them and they are not scorched.”

*I’d like to express my gratitude to Funhill Games for providing a free copy of this game in exchange for my honest opinion(s).


Review: Commentary and Authority in Mesopotamia and Qumran by Bronson Brown-deVost

978-3-525-54072-5_600x600Bronson Brown-deVost. Commentary and Authority in Mesopotamia and Qumran. JAJ Supplement 29. Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 2019. 296 pp.

Although commentaries among the Dead Sea Scrolls, the pesharim, have been subject to scholarly analysis since their discovery, only recently have they been put into conversation with Mesopotamian commentary texts. Moreover, studies on Mesopotamian commentaries are becoming more in vogue, most notably by scholars like Eckart Frahm and Uri Gabbay. Drawing these sub-fields together, Bronson Brown-deVost compares the pesharim and Mesopotamian commentaries in order “to more fully explain the nature and function of the continuous pesher commentaries from Qumran as well as the authoritative status of the compositions they comment on” (13). That is to say, Brown-deVost focuses on the pesharim by comparing them with Mesopotamian commentaries.

First, Brown-deVost introduces the Mesopotamian commentaries from which he draws, primarily selecting ones that deal with religious and literary texts (Enūma elish Commentary I, Ludlul bēl nēmeqi, The Babylonian Theodicy, and Maqlû, shurpu, and Tummu bītu). He also notes all technical terminology, such as what constitutes a lemma, comment, internal citation, keyword, base-text, and the transliteration conventions for Mesopotamian and Qumran texts.

Second, Brown-deVost describes the Qumran pesharim from two perspectives: a general overview and a formal description. For the general overview, using Williamson’s cognitive model of the genre of a pesher, he adds that pesharim “deal exclusively with poetry” (30). Subsequently, he selects texts for analysis which are part of the pesher genre. Notably, he excludes 4QpApocWeeks because ït fails to link the base-text to post-biblical historical or eschatological settings”(34). Previously, though, he notes “what is less certain… is whether or not it would be beneficial to posit such thematic concerns… as a central feature of the pesher genre”(31). Thus, I am left wondering how inclusion of 4QpApocWeeks may have impacted subsequent analysis. He also discusses the Jewish background of Qumran commentaries evident in Hebrew Bible glosses, re-interpretation of previous biblical works, especially by Daniel and Jeremiah, and the rise in interpretations as revelation in Ben Sira 39:6 (LXX) and 1QpHab.

Next, Brown-deVost describes the formal features of Qumran commentaries. First, he describes the physical layout of the pesharim, especially where and how texts use blank space and other paratextual features. Second, he provides statistical analysis of the pesharim based the lemma and comment lengths, indicative of “a relatively sharp line… between the commentaries on Isaiah and the rest of the pesharim” (58). Third, based on structural analysis, he distinguishes three commentary types: short lemma, long lemma, and linked lemma. The previous allows him to identify three pesher scopes:

“compositions that comment on a single large section from a base-text or even the full work… compositions that comment on multiple large selections that each constitute a complete literary unit… and 3) compositions that comment only on select smaller portions of the base text” (69).

Subsequently, he identifies commentary styles, based on technical vocabulary and hermeneutic techniques, and manuscript duplicates. Finally, based on all the previous discussion and data, he suggests for types of continuous pesharim.

Third, Brown-deVost compares Mesopotamian commentaries with Qumran pesharim from three perspectives: formal features, composition models, and commenting communities. Most notably, he suggests that a form-critical reading of the pesharim is indicative of “multiple literary units that may or may not have been integrated with on another” (149), positing composition history but not redactional layers. Additionally, based on his analysis of the pesharim and literary and religious Mesopotamian commentaries, he notes a 1 to 10 ration of commentary to base-texts to explain the lack of duplicate texts, though it is unclear where this number comes from. Moreover, he suggests that although pesharim and Mesopotamian commentaries used similar hermeneutic techniques, via transmission of Mesopotamian hermeneutics in Aramaic, they have no genetic relationship in terms of literary structure or genre.

Finally, Brown-deVost works “to further specificy the particular aspects of Mesopotamian and Qumran society for which these compositions were used as authoritative sources” (160). Initially, he untangles and nuances terminology: scripture, biblical, canon and canonical, and authority and authoritative. After briefly discussing these terms in context of Mesopotamia and Qumran, he posits for types of authority based on Michael Satlow’s How the Bible Became Holy and Marc Brettler’s The Creation of History in Ancient Israel: normative, oracular, mytho-historic, and scholarly. Though normative authority is indicated some DSS MSS, the pesharim, like Mesopotamian commentaries, do not assign normative authority to base-texts. At Qumran, scribes were concerned with the oracular authority of base-texts, with a minor interest in mytho-poetic authority and no interest in scholarly authority. And though he recognizes that multiple domains can be mapped for a text, he only provides one example with no further discussion. Also commenting on the role and status of commentaries at Qumran and in Mesopotamia, he suggests that whereas Mesopotamian commentaries sometimes try to re-orient the base-text, pesharim typically have oracular authority; however, his justification is that “oracular domain can be strongly felt in the tenor of their explications and their rhetoric” (181), not providing any substantial evidence or discussion. Though his approach to textual authority as a non-binary category is helpful, thorough discussion and analysis of textual authority at Qumran outside of the pesharim is abset, analysis which would more clearly illuminate how the pesharim interact with other authoritative texts and the degree to which that type of interaction is, or is not, the norm.

The volume concludes with editions of the pesharim and enūma elish Commentary I.

Before raising any critiques of the volume, a few features are worth highlighting. First, Brown-deVost’s formal describtion of the pesharim is indispensable, as it is thorough and full of insightful observations. For example, concerning mid-line dots in 1QpHab 7:2, he suggests that its function in preventing a copyist from changing לוא to לו may be connected to the function of a paseq in Masoretic notation (51). Likewise, his statistical analysis of lemmata and comments set a standard for the precision by which scholars of pesharim, or any texts, should make claims about the general nature of the pesharim. It would, though, be productive (possibly) to figure out how to account for all of the pesharim scraps and fragments which he did not include.

Additionally, Brown-deVost’s discussion about composition models, especially evidence of composition history based on literary critical analysis, may be convincing to scholars who have identified pesharim comments lacking cogency or coherency.

Even so, a few arguments, data discussions, and conclusions need refining. These include the selection of and discussions about Mesopotamian commentaries, the approach to authoritative texts, and some general notes.

Mesopotamian Commentaries

From the outset, Brown-deVost establishes that he will draw only from religious and literary Mesopotamian texts, excluding omen, medical, and lexical commentaries. He should have used a more rigorous means of selecting Mesopotamian commentaries, especially because his selection only constitutes about 2.7% of all commentaries (15n7). So, I am left wondering how accurately he portrays Mesopotamian commentaries.

In a similar vein, the serialized version of sa-gig contains a concern for the religious sphere: “Alamdimmû (concerns) physical features (and) external forms, (which reveal) the human’s fate that Ea and Asalluhi/Marduk(?) decreed” (Wee 2015, 253). Here, Sa-gig and the older physiognomic series Alamdimmû are edited into a single text. It is portrayed, though, with the religious language of deities’ decrees. Omen literature is equally focused on how the divine functions in the world. Is this not a religious concern?

Furthermore, the Mesopotamian commentaries from which he draws are from multiple locations. By contrast, the pesharim are only from Qumran. For a more precise comparison in the future, dividing Akkadian commentaries by their role in particular archives may be more productive, as DSS and archives are more similar socially. Such an approach wuld also provide more clear guidelines for determining the ratio of commentary MSS to base-text MSS, which Brown-deVost indentifies by averaging “out the number of manuscript remains for a given work by dividing the total number of manuscripts by the number a [of?] tablets in the series” (152n429). This method fails to account for archival and chronological nuances.

Authoritative Texts

Though Brown-deVost clearly moves in the right direction regarding how texts treat base-texts as authoritative, his methdology permits limited insights. Rather than collectively and carefully cataloging the ways in which pesharim treat base-texts and developing categories based on that, he simply draws from categories by Michael Satlow and Marc Brettler. This issue, though, may be the result of a deeper issues: what is textual authority and how does one identify a text as viewing another authoritative to some degree? That is, while he discusses what constitutes authority, he only draws from biblical studies, not turning towards the extensive corpus of literary-critical theory which wrestles with the notion of authority.

In similar way, while Brown-deVost nuances terms like canon, canonical, scripture, bible, etc., his definitions are subjective and would be strengthened with literary-critical theory.

General Notes

Concerning his discussion about the transmission of Mesopotamian knowledge to Qumran via Aramaic, I was surprised not to see any reference to Seth Sanders’ From Adapa to Enoch. Likewise, I was surprised to see no reference to Uri Gabbay’s The Exegetical Terminology of Akkadian Commentaries (2016). Moreover, it would be worth looking into John Wee’s forthcoming volumes on Sa-gig.

Also, a few references did not make it into the Bibliography: Veldhuis, “TIN.TIR = Babylon” and David Andrew Teeter, Scribal Laws. There is are typographical errors on pp. 64 (“Do to its highly fragmentary…”) and 152n429 (the total number of manuscripts by the number a tablets in the series”).


I highly recommend Bronson Brown-deVost’s Commentary and Authority in Mesopotamia and Qumran. Although his selection of Mesopotamian texts and use of literary-critical theory needs improvement, his analysis of pesharim in indispensable. Likewise, his movement towards a diversified notion of authority is refreshing and signals a paradigm shift.



John Z. Wee. “Phenomena in Writing: Creating and Interpreting Variants of the Diagnostic Series Sa-gig.” In In the Wake of the Compendia: Infrastructural Contexts and the Licensing of Empiricism in Ancient and Medieval Mesopotamia, ed. C. Johnson. Berlin: de Gruyter, 2015. 247-288.