Review: “Building Imaginary Worlds: The Theory and History of Subcreation” by Mark J. P. Wolf’

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

In Building Imaginary Worlds: The Theory and History of Subcreation, Mark J. P. Wolf develops a framework and criteria for describing and examining imaginary worlds, subcreated worlds. Indeed, Wolf accomplishes this goal, exploring various issues related to philosophy, narratology, storytelling, readers, characters, authorship, transmedia storytelling, and more. Thus, Wolf’s volume is quite thorough. At the same time, some of Wolf’s analysis felt cut short and left me wanting more. Nonetheless, the book forms a helpful foundation for analyzing and exploring notions of world building not only in fan fiction, media, and cultural studies but in other fields as well.


In the Introduction, Wolf acknowledges that while some readers are primarily and only interested in narrative, other readers may be especially interested in the world building aspects of a book inasmuch as those elements enhance the reader’s experience (e.g., glossaries, maps, timelines). As such, imaginary worlds do not necessarily rely on narratives. Thus, the nature of imaginary worlds and reader preferences necessitate a critical approach distinct from one focusing on narrative. Moreover, building imaginary worlds, Wolf rightly contends, is a universal human behavior [1]. Additionally, Wolf provides a general overview of how previous writers and theorists explored making imaginary worlds. Much of this work was written by the world authors themselves or took a distinctly philosophical perspective of “possible worlds” and modal logic. Wolf’s book, though, continues this discourse by focusing not only on the language and text of imaginary worlds but by including the audiovisual aspects of imaginary worlds in his analysis. This shift away toward media studies for understanding world building is pertinent because, as Wolf highlights, media consumption patterns are changing with media types (i.e., more focus on world building through audiovisual elements) and “the more traditional literary criticism are not world-centered and constitute a different focus” (12).

In Chapter 1, Wolf describes various aspects of how an imaginary world, subcreated world, or Secondary World works. As a jumping-off point, he briefly explains the history of imaginary worlds within philosophy, otherwise known as possible worlds. While foundational to fictional worlds more broadly, such philosophical approaches, Wolf contends, inadequately address audiovisual-based worlds, instead focusing primarily on literature. He shifts to world-builders themselves and traces a thread regarding how those people approached fictional worlds. Beginning with the notion of imagination presented by Coleridge and George MacDonald’s considerations of such imaginative worlds necessitating internally consistent laws, Wolf leans especially on J. R. R. Tolkein’s works. Because humans are created by a god, Tolkein asserts, so human have the ability to subcreate, which Wolf describes in detail: “Subcreation . . . involves new combinations of existing concepts, which, in the building of a secondary world, become the inventions that replace or reset the Primary World defaults . . . . The more one changes these defaults, the more the secondary world becomes different and distinct from the Primary World. It is not surprising, then, that secondary worlds will in many way resemble the Primary World . . . . Secondary Worlds, then, have the same ddefault assumptions as does the Primary World, except where the author has indicated otherwise” (24). In light of this idea, Wolf starts to discuss to what he calls the “secondariness” of a world, namely, the degree to which it is connected to the Primary World. Secondary, imaginative worlds are best arranged “along a spectrum of attachment to, or reliance on, the Primary World (as we know it) and its defaults” (27) so that people experience different worlds in different ways.

These worlds are often more than a story, though. As Wolf comments, “A compelling story and a compelling world are very different things, and one need not require the other” (29). A text, then, can become world-building when the narrative goes beyond what is necessary to advance the story. He articulate the aspects of world-building through three categories: invention, completeness, and consistency. These categories link to three descriptions of how one experiences a world: immersion, absorption, and saturation. Speaking less about the reader’s experience and more toward how readers fill gaps, he discusses the world Gestalten of ellipsis, logic, and extrapolation, or how “a structure or configuration of details together implies the existence of an imaginary world, and causes the audiences to automatically fill in the missing pieces of that world, based on the details that are given” (52). Shifting away from perception and Gestalten, Wolf draws attention to catalysts of speculation, how certain worlds make people curious and result in people attempting “to answer questions in more etail, either by the world’s originator, by those authorized to add to it, or even by unauthorized fan additions” (61). Finally, Wolf concludes by highlighting that the framing of clear boundaries between Primary World and Secondary World has lessened overtime as people have become more used to these imaginary worlds.

In chapter 2, Wolf broadly descries the history of imaginary worlds. He begins with transnarrative characters and literary cycles, suggesting that wold build begins to take off when characters from one story appear in another, thereby causing audiences to fill the gaps of such transnarrative characters. Moving forward, and in some cases at the same time, world building happened in mythical stories, such as in the Odyssey, Herodotus, Lucian, or Plato. The next major shift occurred closer to the turn of the first millenium, which gave rise to travelers’ tales during the age of exploration (up to the nineteenth century), of which many explorations were simply fantastical stories with world building. During this time, we also see the emergence of utopias and dystopias. Beginning in the nineteenth century, and based on the various world-building groupings before, fantasy and science fiction books emerged and proliferated as a genre. Such proliferation changed how people understood such imaginary worlds: “People grew more accustomed to experiencing and forming a mental image of distant parts of the world through media representations, which often involved a wide range of sources of varying reliability. In this way, mass media helped to lessen the gap between real foreign countries which were experienced solely through media, and imaginary worlds, which could only be experienced through media” (112). So emerged new forms of world building in mediums that readers of the twenty-first century are more familiar with: early cinema and comic strips, the first world building of Oz, pulp magazines, movies and theater, radio and television, Tolkien’s work, and the rise of world-building media franchises (e.g., Star Wars, Dune, Star Trek, etc.). With technology changes in the last fifty to seventy years, we have also see interactive worlds, such as video games, become a major medium for experiencing other worlds. Overall, Wolf’s outline of world-building history demonstrates the role of secondary, imaginary worlds as places where humans have been able to perform art and thought experiences.

In chapter 3, Wolf explores various aspects involved in structure imaginary worlds and the systems therein. While narrative plays an important role in world-building, he focuses more on the specific experiential elements and how those elements can overlap: maps, timelines, nature, culture, language, mythology, and philosophy. World-builders can tie together different aspects of these categories to create infrastructure for a complex, imaginary world. What makes this chapter more than a simple description the aspects involved in constructing a world is that Wolf make clear how world-builders incorporate these elements in distinct ways and in distinct contexts. Similarly, he explains how these particular elements function to form the infrastructure for a secondary work.

In chapter 4, Wolf examines how “narrative operates within a world and helps to structure it” (198). He first discusses narrative threads, braids, and fabric, drawing on narrative theory to explain how the weaving together of narrative braids can play a central role in world-building. Although Wolf does not give this example, Game of Thrones (at least the TV show, as I haven’t read the books) is a great example of how various narrative braids are woven together into a fabric to construct a broader world, each braid coming together to form a fabric. Second, and related to the issue of narratives, Wolf highlights the importance of backstory and world history, and such stories often have “low narrative resolution” (202) and involve characters different from the original stories. He also calls these “nested stories” (204), which link stories within an imaginary world. Third, he addresses sequence elements and internarrative theory, which concerns how world-building occurs through sequels and prequels, and even stories coming in between stories, which Wolf coins midquels, interquels, and intraquels, and framing stories, which he coins transquels. These various ways to think about world-building and sequencing provide helpful categories for describing the history of world building. Third, he addressing retroactive continuity (retcon) and reboots. Fourth, he identifies how crossovers, multiverses, and retroactive linkages can create larger, overarching world. Moving to a different form of media, and fifth, he addresses how certain technologies enable interactivity and alternate story lines that “raise questions regarding the status of a world and the canonicity of events in that world” (221). Finally, he discusses how “making of” documentation serve world-building by highlighting details, demonstrating world consistency, and adding new content. And narrative links all of these things together.

In chapter 5, Wolf addresses the next level after subcreations: when a subcreation creates its own subcreated world. In these contexts, words play a central role because they give rise to a sub-subcreated world. With this process in transmedia, creators often bring a degree of self-reflexivity to the table, reflecting on their own acts of subcreation. So, Wolf identifies multiple examples. Within this context, he highlights evil subcreators, who become importance to the broader narrative fabric of a story and world.

In chapter 6, Wolf describes how worlds grow not just in books (e.g., Baum’s Wizard of Oz) but in different media forms (i.e., transmedia) either via adaption or growth. Key to this matter is transmediality, which is “the state of being represented in multiple media” (247). And while acknowledging that exploring how each media form transfers to another would be valuable, it would also be repetitive and lengthy. So, he focuses mainly on looking “at each of the properties present in different media, their capabilities and peculiarities, and the process of using each as a window that reveals an imaginary world” (248). He focuses, then, on five elements: description, something often originating with words on a page and relates to “describing the experience of perception as much as the object being perceived” (252); visualization, which uses a certain vantage point “to further comment on the scene, enhance aspects of it, and suggest a certain attitude towards what is portrayed” (253); auralization, which uses sound to create a world; interactivation, combining various forms of media into an interactive media (e.g., video games); and deinteractivation, fixed forms of media such as turning Super Mario Bros. into a movies and dispensing of the interactive elements. For these various media windows, Wolf highlights they can be experienced in a variety of ways as follows, and not always in the same order, thereby changing the viewer’s experience: “order of public appearance, order of creation, internal chronological order, canonical order, order of media preference, and age-appropriate order” (265).

In chapter 7, Wolf discusses the circles of authorship and how the relationship between various stakeholders involved in the world-building process, or recipients of it, maintain a degree of authorship, depending on the media. To address this matter, Wolf first distinguishes between closed world and open world, though he recognizes the role that things like merchandise and fan fiction can play in expanding even a closed world. Based on these categories, he also identifies how different worlds can have different levels of canonicity. When it comes to canonicity, many folks are involved, each with a different type of stake in the media or product: the originator and main author; estates, heirs, and torchbearers; employees and freelancers; approved, derivative, and ancillary products, and elaborationists and fan productions. He discusses nuances for each of these groups. In a somewhat secondary category, he discusses participatory worlds as places where authorship also plays a role, such as in MMORPGs. He concludes the chapter, and indeed the book, by highlighting how subcreation “renews our vision and gives us new perspective and insight into ontological questions that might otherwise escape our notice with the default assumptions we make about reality” (287).

In the appendix, Wolf includes an appendix of imaginary worlds.


In this section, I lay out a range of criticisms, engage constructively with Wolf’s work, and push the boundaries of where Wolf’s method and approach to world building might help fields outside media studies.

First, though media in the modern world is undoubtedly more diverse than it was seven hundred years ago, Wolf may have missed an important opportunity to consider world building in light of diverse, historically contingent frameworks for what constitutes different types of media. Indeed, he is right that “books, drawings, photographs, film, radio, television, video games, websites, and other media,” as well as their proliferation, “have opened portals through which these world grow in clarity and detail” (1-2). Likewise, such world building through these new media forms is undoubtedly historically unique due to the role that sound and images often play in the process. But in describing the history of world building, he should have considered how different societies perceived and enacted world building with their various media forms. For example, although we of view pamphlets, printed manuscripts, hand-written manuscripts, and scrolls as similar things, namely, some form of parchment or paper on which people wrote, the art, physical texture, creation process, general appearance, and general assumptions differed. As such, people would have different experiences reading the various media forms, comparable to the difference between watching movie on a small laptop as opposed to in a movie theater.

Second, one major weakness Wolf’s discussion of world-building history regard transnarrative characters. In particular, Wolf comments that “the simplest literary indication that a world exists beyond the details needed [. . .] is a transnarrative character. A character who appears in more than one story links the stories’ world together by being present in them” (66). He then mentions King Nebuchadnezzar II as an example of a historical, transnarrative character because he appears or is mentioned in 2 Kings, 1 and 2 Chronicles, Ezra, Nehemiah, Esther, Jeremiah, Daniel, and Josephus. This perspective, though, fails to consider these texts and Nebuchadnezzar’s representation in each text. Moreover, since his representation in these various texts did not collectively aim to construct a complex, nuanced world (i.e., world-building), how Nebuchadnezzar is somehow a transnarrative character related to world-building is unclear.

Third, although beyond the scope of Wolf’s work, his discussion of Bibles is pertinent to tracking how the Christian religious imagination developed between the fourteenth and seventeenth centuries through books. In particular, he highlights that “during the 1500s, maps were already appearing in printed Bibles, which may have encouraged the inclusion of more maps of imaginary worlds” (156). Admittedly, I would have liked if Wolf demonstrated how maps in printed Bibles and maps for imaginary worlds were (or were not) historically related to each other, the former giving rise to the latter. Nonetheless, if we accept Wolf’s assertion, we can make some preliminary observations on the nature of imaginary worlds and world building regarding conceptions of religion in the 1500s. First, I wonder to what extent world-building and religion overlap cognitively to the effect that some world-building groups become perceived as so-called religious. Indeed, some folks in the 1500s perceived the world of the Bible as something to be expanded upon, something that needed world-building in its own right. And we see this trend continuing today, to a degree, through new study Bibles, replete with essays, maps, historical context, and more. That is, religious practitioners build out and seek to better understand the Bible’s historical contexts in order to expand its universe. And fandoms perform such intellectual endeavors as well for fictional books. Therefore, this overlap in creating an imaginative world may explain, in part, why some scholars have looked at fandoms and viewed them as a sort of quasi-religious group.

Fourth, Wolf’s work would have been stronger if he had identified alternative ways of framing world-building. In the boo, he frames world-building as a form of subcreation, an idea from Tolkien’s work about humans being created by God and thus subcreating other things. Even at the end of the volume, while he rightly points out that world-building “renews our vision and gives us new perspective and insight into ontological questions that might otherwise escape our notice within the default assumptions we make about reality” (287), Wolf nonetheless brings everything back around to appreciating “the Divine design of Creation.” One alternative to simply wrapping his conclusion back to a sort of theological conclusion would be to explore the notion of world-building through an interdisciplinary lens, to show how anthropology, neuroscience, and psychology might shed light on the phenomenon of world-building.


Overall, Mark Wolf’s book is worth reading and offers a helpful way to approach, frame, describe, and think about world-building, a important skill in a world wherein world-building is becoming more important than the narrative itself, where franchise trumps story. And while the book has a few shortcoming, it offers a range of avenues for future scholarship.

[1] Vulcans might not be interested in building imaginary worlds, but they are part of an imaginary world. In facts, Vulcans in this light may be an imaginative opposite of what constitutes a human being.


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Review: “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.