Review: “Guide to the Study of Ancient Magic” edited by David Frankfurter

Frankfurter2019David Frankfurter (editor). Guide to the Study of Ancient Magic. Religions in the Graeco-Roman World. Volume 189. Leiden: Brill, 2019. XIX + 797. 

Guide to the Study of Ancient Magic analyzes magic expansively, including a wide range of traditions and methodologies. It is divided into four parts. Part One provides a general introduction to the volume, framing magic as a category which has utility. Part Two suggests that magic should be understood as a form of illegitimate ritual. Each entry within Part Two describes magic as such and avoids using the term “magic,” focusing on constructing the emic perspective. It covers Mesopotamia, Iran, Egypt, Greece, ancient Israel and Early Judaism, Rome and the Roman Empire, early Christianity, and Roman and Byzantine Egypt. Part Three offers analyses of objects and texts historically called magical, each chapter providing fresh analysis and an overview of the history of scholarship. Magic items and objects include the Greco-Egyptian magical papyri, Christian spells and manuals from Egypt, binding spells, Jewish amulets, magic bowls, and magic, gems, figurines and images in ritual practice, textual amulets and writing traditions, and ritual objects in buildings. Finally, Part Four examines “magic as a quality or dynamic of words, texts, artifacts, persons, ritual procedures, or socials situations” (25). Magic is approached from the perspective of speech acts, writing, materiality, mysticism, theurgy, local application of an authoritative tradition, and social tension.

Overall, the volume is an excellent introduction to the theory of magic and ways that magic is practiced through time and space. Notable contributions include each introduction to regional forms of magic (illegitimate ritual) in chapters 4-11, David Frankfurter’s discussion of “magic” as a form of local ritual drawing from an authoritative tradition, and Sarah Iles Johnston’s discussion of the relationship between theurgy and magic. Though readers may have minor quibbles concerning points by authors, by and large Guide to the Study of Ancient Magic is an excellent volume for a detailed overview of studies of magic in the ancient world. Therefore, I will focus my criticisms on points of possible improvement evident throughout the entire volume. Additionally, below the body of this review is a summary of each chapter and occasional comment about contributions.

First, Guide to the Study of Ancient Magic does not effectively deal with places of historical and ritual overlap. This is especially evident in various author’s discussions of early Christianity, Rome, and Roman/Byzantine Egypt. Many of these materials and cultural traditions developed within the same cultural milieu. As such, it would possibly be more helpful to discuss each in conjunction with one another.

In a similar vein, cultural overlaps are indicative of a degree of intercultural contact and sharing of knowledge. No contributions attempt to track or identify paths wherein knowledge was exchanged or could be exchanged. By doing so, we could have a better sense of how the places wherein magical traditions overlap attained new representability after shifting from one historical context to another via a medium. This issue may be dealt with by more critically considering the notion of the “Mediterranean world.” Helpful discussion of the Mediterranean in terms of intercultural contact is present in The Early Mediterranean World, 1200 – 600 BC.

Second, various contributors should consider incorporating more literary and critical theory into their work. Literary and critical theory would provide helpful frameworks and explanations for claims. For example, David Frankfurter comments about Egypt and hieroglyphs: “vocalization of words was symbolically fixed to their written expression (and vice versa), so writing could substitute for vocal utterance” (630). The notion that writing is a sort of substitute for speech is evident is many literary theorists, most notably Barbara Smith. By further exploring how literary theorists and cognitive linguists think about the relationship between speech and text, Frankfurter and others may be able to develop more systematic, critical, and informed models on how magic functions.

Third, though the editor notes this problem, it is worth highlighting in the review: many traditions are excluded. These include, though are not limited to, Islam and other marginal traditions throughout the ancient Mediterranean. Criticism of the absence of certain traditions is related to my previous points. Intercultural contacts and exchange were common throughout the Mediterranean. As such, the boundaries between traditions, namely the chapter divisions in this volume, are perhaps more porous and permeable in history than the volume indicates. The editor should consider how to develop an approach to magic which is both historically contextualized and flexible enough to account for the permeable and porous boundaries between cultural groups and societies throughout history.

Even with these three criticisms, Guide to the Study of Ancient Magic is a thorough and thoughtful volume on the current state of magic studies in antiquity. Many chapters may be useful as introductory reading for undergraduate and graduate students (Part 2). Moreover, other scholars would do well to familiarize themselves with the methodological discussions Part 4 in order to develop them for their own purposes. In short, I highly recommend Guide to the Study of Ancient Magic to libraries, as it is a particularly helpful reference book for issues of ancient magic.

Chapter Summaries

In chapter 1, David Frankfurter explores how scholars have discussed “magic” from three perspectives, commenting on the implications for each one. First, he argues for a distinction between how texts represent or create caricatures of ‘magic’ practitioners and “how historical ritual specialists in certain times and places might actually have invoked demonic forces in certain rituals” (7). Second, he highlights how modern compilations of ancient documents as ‘magic’ are primarily “documents of specific historical subcultures” (9), like Egyptian priests in the 6th century or Jewish Rabbis in Babylonia. They are not documenting mageia. With this, he provides for guiding points for studying magic: (a) as much as possible, use indigenous vocabulary; (b) consider how texts epitomize illegitimate ritual; (c) when using terms like witch or wizard, be clear when it is used to describe a literary figure as opposed to a real, social figure; and (d) textual evidence is not magic but types of rituals. Third, magic should not be understood as a second order-classification but as a heuristic tool,  which signifies “a shift in political and spatial dimension of materials, formulas and ceremonial elements and the particular charisma borne in the local domain by the symbols of broad religious institutions” (14).

In chapter 2, David Frankfurter outlines the goal and organization of the volume, directing focus on “the problems and interests in ancient materials and the theoretical challenges that they occasion” (22). Within this broad frame, the volume is divided into 3 subsequent sections. Part 2 considers cultural constructions of illegitimate, unsanctioned ritual, aiming for emic and idiosyncratic descriptions of such rituals. Part 3 explores texts and materials which have been called magical and aims to describe how such materials may be used by scholars and what the materials were. Part 4 uses magic as a heuristic term, an etic term, using “magic as a quality or dynamic of words, texts, artifacts, persons, ritual procedures, or social situations” (25).

Chapter 3 briefly introduces Part 2.

In Chapter 4, Daniel Schwemer initially provides a broad overview of ritual lore, focused on the ashipu profession. From texts related to this, namely ritual texts against kishpu, he describes how rituals within ashiputu corpora characterize kishpu and its cause. From this emerges the characterization of an image which was dealt with via ritual actions. Of course, worked into all this is an overview of diagnostic texts. He complicates the presentation by noting the presence of rituals from the Neo-Assyrian and Achaemenid periods which were viewed as kishpu in some texts. In general, Schwemer’s description is an excellent emic description of Mesopotamian magic. Two additions would improve the entry though. First, attention to the socio-economic aspects of magic would be helpful. Second, it would be helpful to distinguish more clearly between text and reality, bridging the divide between the two via analysis.

In chapter 5, Albert de Jong describes the constructions of, and problems with, magic in ancient Iran regarding Zoroastrianism. Particularly problematic with Zoroastrianism is that evidence for constructions of ‘magic’ is found primarily within two textual corpora: Avestan texts and the middle Persian texts known in Pahlavi. Avestan texts include three categories of evil beings: yatus, pairikas, and daevayasnas. The daevayasnas are portrayed as those who invite daevas, usually translated ‘demon’, to sacrifices, thereby strengthening evil. At base, though, daevayasnas are portrayed through the ritual lens of the Avestan texts as those who perform rituals incorrectly, the texts only sometimes describing daeva-worship practice. So, “these texts do not interpret the daevayasnas as such, but interpret other sources of evil and locate the daevayasnas among them” (72).

As for the yatu and pairika, usually translated as sorcerer and witch, Avestan texts characterize these figures as female with malicious and pernicious influence. Pahlavi texts yield similar conclusions concerning the dewesn (devil worshippers) and jadugs (sorcerers). The former is characterized primarily as performing ritual improperly. The latter is characterized whoring, being disobedient, or committing ritual transgression. Sassanian texts also suggest women could be accused for acting as a jadug.

So, at base, de Jong portrays Zoroastrianism as a system wherein the texts are less interested in ‘wrong ritual’ but more interested in precision of correct ritual. As such, proper rituals and prayers are said to be mighty weapons against daevayasnassorcerers, and witches. Unfortunately, material culture complicates the picture because the most helpful things are Sassanian amulet seals which are not present in Zoroastrian texts. Equally problematic is the relationship between incantation bowls, replete with Iranian personal names, divine names, and geographic names, and Zoroastrianism. Overall, it is difficult to comment on religion and magic in Zoroastrianism due to the lack of evidence. Though the contribution is thorough and enlightening, I am left wondering about the reason for ritual ambiguity: is it possible that the ambiguity of ritual transgressions is an intentional thing? Is part of the literary construction of evil figures meant to be ambiguous? If so, how does this impact how we understand other groups in Avestan and Pahlavi texts?

In chapter 6, Jacco Dieleman describes “the nature, functions, and perceptions of ritual and ritualists in pharaonic Egypt” via heka, activities “always framed as assisting in the preservation of the ordered world” (87). Within Egypt, Dieleman constructs a picture of Egypt wherein heka and religion cannot be distinguished. He first describes the nature of heka and how it is harnessed in ritual for ordering the world. Rituals harnessing heka and collections of Egyptian ritual texts demonstrably do not permit a sharp distinction between state ritual and private ritual. Now, because heka is ambiguous, he examines how heka can be a hostile force and how there existed a fear, albeit not a reality, of foreign heka workers who performed rituals with malicious aims, a stereotype present in narrative texts. Finally, he deals with curse rituals, regularly practiced in Egypt for general defense by the state and private individuals. So, “there was no concept of ‘black magic’ or deviant, illegitimate ritual in ancient Egypt” (113). This chapter is notable for its exceedingly clear layout, helpful and insightful discussion of the relationship between religion and magic, and consistent use of primary source material instead of assertions about Egyptian ‘magic.’

In chapter 7, Fritz Graf offers an overview of magic in Greece. Stemming from the goal of defining magos and its cognates, he also (a) examines terminology rivaling or supplementing magos and (b) examines whether magos has anything to do with sanctioned or unsanctioned activities. Texts from the 6th and 5th centuries BCE represent magos as an “itinerant religious entrepreneur” (121). During this period, magos was embedded within a network of ritual specialists: mantisaugrtes, and goes. During the 4th century, magos also became negatively associated with thusiaiepoide, and pharmaka. He ends by describing how the Homeric thelxis, a charm, eventually came to be criminalized by Theodosius and Justinian. Although Graf effectively illustrates how magos developed chronologically in relation to the culture and generally provides and helpful overview, the piece is poorly organized. As such, it is difficult to follow the various developments of magos within the Greek tradition.

In chapter 8, Yuval Harari describes the terminological development of “various aspects of paranormal power and knowledge: from Jewish sources in the Hebrew Bible, the Second Temple period, and Rabbinic literature. First, concerning biblical literature, Harari begins by describing prohibitions against various unsanctioned ritual specialists in Deut 18:9-15. In doing so, Harari frames the discussion in terms of us and others, Us being “the biblically sanctioned agent of knowledge and “truth”” (141-142), the aim being an emic description which is methodologically challenging. From here, he describes multiple aspects of how the Hebrew Bible constructs sanctioned sources and unsanctioned sources of knowledge and paranormal power: signs (אות) and prophetic deeds, priestly practices, means of delegitimizing the “Other”, and performative speech as regards cursing and Yahweh’s name. Through this, he shows how the bible “recognizes the effectiveness of foreign agents of supernatural power and knowledge operating in the world, but consistently reiterates their inferiority vis-a-vis those who act on God’s behalf and under his auspices” (150).

Second, examining Second Temple period writings, Harari highlights multiple key developments: demonology, exorcism via heavenly knowledge from God, demons who teach women unsanctioned knowledge, and ritual performances with sanctioned efficacy being framed as speech from a biblical hero. Third, considering how these ideas grew into Rabbinic Judaism, he describes Rabbinic literature from three perspectives: various laws on keshafim, the power of words, and how Rabbinic literature constructs alien practices and other agents of paranormal events or activities. So, he proposes three basic ideas for exercising power in Rabbinic literature: “(1) a basic belief in the performative potential of the human “deed” (ma’aseh), which effects transformational change in the world and is kishuf, (2) a prohibition against its performance because it is idolatry or defiance of heaven, and (3) stories about the rabbis’ power to operate precisely in this way, that is, to perform a ma’aseh” (173). Overall, Harari’s contribution is one of the best; however, that is likely because much of his discussion is drawn from his previous book on the subject. Even so, his analysis is notable because it (a) focuses on the literary construction of ‘magic’ and (b) emphasizes the issue of knowledge, an emphasis which would be helpful for every contribution. Excluded from his discussion, though, is how certain biblical figures who attain knowledge in unsanctioned rituals are related to the broader Near Eastern culture. For example, how to the kesheph and hartumim relates to Mesopotamian and Egyptian rituals?

In chapter 9, Magali Bailliot traces the evolution of ambiguous ritual practices through the lens of juridical texts. First, by tracing relevant terminology in the Twelve Tables, counter-spells and disenchantments in Pliny, Plutarch, Augustine, and iconography, relevant terminology in Lex Cornelia de sicariis et veneficis, and various later texts, Bailliot highlights how rituals involving things like sorcery, haruspicy, and divination were socially ambiguous. They were perceived as such even more so when such rituals had the potential to disrupt social and political stability. Second, Bailliot describes how defixiones functioned as historically ambiguous rituals, using defixiones “as testimonies to ancient mentalities” (194). To do so, Bailliot shows how gesture, symbol, and word are all linked together within defixiones, though she doesn’t deal with images. With this, Bailliot concludes by suggesting that the itinerant specialists (magicus, necromancer, veneficus, etc.), namely the Others, “did not challenge social rules so much as lend themselves to a play of ambiguities” (197). Though this contribution is solid, for those unfamiliar with Latin, Greek, and Roman studies, the heavy use of emic terminology may confound readers. This raises an important issue in studying any magic: how does one use emic terms in a way that does not make the material unapproachable by non-specialists?

In chapter 10, Joseph E. Sanzo describes the wide range of opinions concerning illicit ritual, ‘magic,’ in early Christian literati. He first addresses how illegitimate and ambiguous ritual characterizations developed in the literary tradition, dividing texts as either narratives or lists. Early narratives do not front illicit practices like mageia, only using such terms for distinguishing insiders from outsiders. Later narratives further developed the contrast between legitimate and illegitimate actors. Lists with illicit rituals, he argues, are similar: earlier texts use general terms for illicit behavior; however, over time, illegitimate ritual experts are more precisely placed within their own taxonomy. Second, he examines the discursive contexts of illegitimate and illicit rituals. To no surprise, discursive contexts typically functioned by establishing religious boundaries. Sanzo also illuminates the diversity of opinions among ecclesiastical leaders.

In chapter 11, Jacques van der Vliet describes construction of illegitimate ritual practices from textual sources in Roman and Byzantine Egypt. First, he outlines the history of the region, the types of source material, and relevant terminology. Second, he describes illegitimate ritual from five perspectives: (a) deviant ritual practices are used to draws boundaries in terms of religious and intellectual differences; (b) terms like mageia that are used to other individuals and sub-groups within the broader category of “Christian,” a sort of insider conflict; (c) sources which offer credible scenarios about how illegitimate ritual functioned in society, though this section is poorly presented because van der Vliet does not explain why he determines texts to be credible; (d) various texts, especially gnostic, that represent the efficacy of illegitimate rituals; and (e) how magos entered Christian imagination as a ‘bad guy’ for saints. Common in each grouping is that the deviant ritual is constructed as having efficacy on account of unsanctioned, illegitimate entities (demon, devil, archons, etc.).

In chapter 12, David Frankfurter introduces Part Three, which focuses on “textual and archaeological materials that have been labelled magic according to long scholarly tradition” (279). He frames Part Three as a section attempting to analyze the literary materials not as magic documents but in terms of how they reflect historical social situations.

In chapter 13, Jacco Dieleman, author of Priests, Tongues, and Rites (Leiden: Brill, 2005), describes the range of Greco-Egyptian magical papyri. He frames magic in this context as “a generic term for a set of ritual practices from late Ptolemaic and Roman Egypt that aimed at acquiring assistance from deities, demons, and the dead for overcoming uncertainty, misfortune illness and conflict in everyday life” (284), a product of the scribal class. Next, he describes the history, origins, and pitfalls of the most accessible text corpora: the Papyri Graecae Magicae (PGM), the Greek Magical Papyri in Translation (GMPT), and the Supplementum Magicum (Suppl. Mag.). Of these manuscripts, Dieleman distinguishes between two types: formularies and activated materials. This allows him to prevent etic categorization of texts, such as language divisions. He also identifies five ancient archives. Shifting to textual content, Dieleman divides the corpora into categories, each with its own subcategories: knowledge, control, protection, healing, and miscellaneous. Then, he draws attention to how the scribal features point to a scribal class conversant with Egyptian, Greek, and Demotic traditions, showing a high degree of technical language and fluid boundaries between Greek and Egyptian scribal cultures.

Moreover, focusing on the apparent bilingualism, he suggests that the bilingual nature of the corpora is grounded in the belief that the supreme deity is beyond and above ethnic and linguistic divisions and answers to different names in different speech communities” (311). Likewise, a reason for bilingual scribal cultural tendencies is “the idea that certain languages, due to their antiquity, are better suited than others to address the divine” (312). Additionally, though Greco-Egyptian formularies often introduce novel ideas, texts tend to be framed “in claiming ancient pedigrees that are without basis in historical reality” (312), thereby giving “clues as to the social and cultural framework in which the practitioners aspired to be working” (312-313). Finally, by noting significant shifts in the corpora, he describes how amalgamation and adaptation appears in Egypt regarding other cultural imports, thereby enabling ritual specialists with “new means to capture and mobilize ritual power in writing” (319). Overall, Dieleman’s contribution is incredibly clear, concise, and well presented. The only problem, though extremely minor, is his use of the term “intertextual,” which appears to be used in an uncritical fashion (300).

In chapter 14, Jacques van der Vliet describes Christian spells and manuals from Egypt, a contribution which is a revision of Marvin Meyer’s (1948-2012) original submission. These texts, typically in Coptic, were produced between 300 and 1200 CE. First, he provides a broad overview of scholarly history, ranging from one of the earliest publications on Coptic magic (1894) to major conferences, articles, and books as late as 2016. Second, he addresses the nature of the Coptic magic corpus, deeming linguistic dichotomy between Greek and Coptic an “antiquated academic habit”, highlighting the corpus as Christian in spirit and background, noting the diversity in text materials, and focusing on Coptic “magic” as a textual practice distinguished from literary and documentary texts. Subsequently, van der Vliet provides an overview of a wide variety of Coptic magic genres and textual strategies. Finally, he describes how future scholarship on Coptic magic must more systematically map out textual sources, more thoroughly consider the social contexts of Coptic spells as ritual artifacts, and consider the authority of Coptic ritual texts. Like other contributions, van der Vliet provides a helpful overview. The sections on genre and textual strategies, though, is difficult to follow. Additionally, it is worth noting the various blog posts from a recent conference on Coptic magic at Universität Würzburg (link).

In chapter 15, Esther Eidinow explores the subject of binding spells (defixiones) on lead and papyri from the 6th century BCE to the 8th century CE, touching on prayers for justice and border-area curses when necessary. She initially provides an overview of the corpora and collection, including forthcoming collections. Next, she outlines a range of texts, diverse in chronology and geographic region. The transmission of defixiones radiates outward form Sicily (6th century BCE), eventually making its way into Roman-Britain. The movement resulted in variations, “shaped by the needs of local contexts, cultures, communities, or even individuals” (364). She then describes how lead binding spells were buried possibly because they were associated with the underworld. Shifting to text and word, Eidinow describes the various types of language (words) and images on defixiones. Finally, based on what is in binding spells, she considers the possible social contexts of them. Even so, she notes that much work remains to be done in mapping the distribution of defixiones in the Mediterranean world and the social dynamics of the objects. Most notable in Eidinow’s contribution is how the uses conceptual blending in order to explain binding spells. The only criticism of her contribution is that rather than asking how the text constructs or imagines a writer of defixiones, she focuses on the writers of defixiones. In reality, we can never know who the writers were or what they were thinking; however, we can know how the text represents the writer, regardless of historical reality.

In chapter 16, Gideon Bohak, who wrote Ancient Jewish Magic: A History (2008), focuses on three groups of Aramaic/Hebrew amulets and magical spells: Byzantine-Palestine, Sassanian Babylonia, and manuals and recipes from late Jewish antiquity. After providing an overview of the respective time periods and regions, Bohak makes a few general observations concerning the corpus. First, he highlights how magic in Egypt, Palestine, and Syria, as opposed to Babylonia, was strongly influenced by local culture. Moreover, evidence for such magic in Babylonia rises drastically in the 5th and 6th centuries CE, which he explains as a period of shifting from oral magic to scribal activity. Second, turning to social contexts of magic artifacts, he notes three trends: (a) though viewing a wide range of heavenly powers as theologically valid, the producers were still firmly monotheistic; (b) magicians were likely also scribes, familiar with spells and the Hebrew Bible, possibly even members of the Rabbinic class; and (c) Jewish physicians likely produced amulets. Even so, Bohak highlights that the study of Jewish magic is in its infancy, in the senses of comparing Jewish magic with Greek and Coptic texts, Babylonian vs Palestinian magic, and ancient Jewish vs Christian magic. Though a splendid contribution, I am not convinced by his explanation for the rise of magic artifacts in the 5th and 6th centuries CE, namely that there was a shift from oral magic to scribal activity. Instead, he should consider how social and economic shifts may have contributed to the influx of magical artifacts.

In chapter 17, Veronique Dasen and Arpad M. Nagy describe magical gems from antiquity, which belong to the broader class of amulets and are a modern etic category. Such amulets reflect “the transculturality of magical knowledge in the Roman imperial period” (416), reflecting old traditions and new developments. First, Dasen and Nagy outline three formal characteristics and three structural elements: gems typically have texts, images, and magical signs; structural elements include engravings, material, and shape. Based on these factors, they may be categorized. Second, they briefly lay out the various functions of gems as amulets (material for which efficacy is not apparent to the non-initiated), gems (with a performative social value and protective function), jewels (primarily a sign of wealth), and seals. The significance and meaning of these categories are unclear, though. Third, they consider how amulets draw from tradition and represent cutting edge, personalized technology, especially in terms of iconography. Though I agree with Dasen and Nagy that both tradition and innovation are present, I disagree with their claim that there is a contradiction between the two. Fourth, shifting to social function, they describe the types of individuals who made amulets (ritual experts), production centers (widespread; no single production center), and chronology (viewing use of magical gems as part of a broader shift from ritual via orality to ritual via writing). They note, though, that identifying who used amulets is either overly specific or too generalized. Various Greco-Egyptian papyri at least show a connection between papyri and gems regarding rituals as two dialects of magic, a concept they should have further detailed. Finally, they provide an overview of why amulets were used, namely for love and illness. In section, they offer an overview of the history of scholarship.

In chapter 18, Andrew Wilburn engages “with the concept of representation in ritual practices and the relationship between an image or simulacrum of a person or thing and the person or thing that it purports to represent” (458). Dividing the analysis into three categories (Egypt and ancient Near East; Greek and Hellenistic world; and Roman), he describes four common ritual. Beginning his discussion, Wilburn first highlights how realism “may not map onto the ancient mind” (461); instead, “the importance of the [image often lies not in its appearance but rather its efficacy to the goals of practitioner or ritual celebrant” (462). For this conclusion, he draws from a mixture of previous studies on regions and critical theory. Second, he offers a broad overview of images in Egypt, the ancient Near East, the Hellenistic world, and the Roman period. He concludes that images were polyvalent in terms of their relation to their antecedent. Even so, the image was simply a representation of the antecedent. I am only left wondering about texts; if a text is viewed as an image, or perhaps language describes a ritual representation, how does that change our understanding?

In chapter 19, Roy D. Kotansky broadly analyzes amulets from the perspective of textuality and writing traditions in the ancient world. He classifies amulets into three categories: unlettered, semi-lettered, and lettered. Konansky’s categories are based on the notion of an amulet progressing from spoken incantation to written text. Next, he considers a wide range of amulet traditions: Mesopotamian, Egyptian, Punic-Phoenician, early Hebrew and Jew, early Greek, and Roman. For each tradition, he attempts to describe its development in terms of textuality, especially regarding how the amulets relate to each other cross-culturally. This contribution is problematic on two accounts. First, he uncritically applies the Great Divide between text and orality, a problem pervasive throughout this volume. Second, he fails to justify his division of amulets by region and does not address issues wherein the categories overlap. Moreover, he extensively uses imprecise and generic rhetoric in order to make claims about textual traditions, such as words like “anticipates” without any substantiation as to why the textual tradition is related.

In chapter 20, Andrew Wilburn examines how various building components across the ancient Mediterranean indicate ritual processes via material evidence (archaeological) and literary sources. For each building component, Wilburn concisely and clearly describes the evidence for cultures chronologically. Initially, though, Wilburn provides a basic theoretical framework for social space. Then he discusses the building components: site preparation, foundation, enclosure, floor, roof, and aggressive ritual activity regarding architecture. In doing so, he illuminates the “fluid relationship between ritual and architecture” (600). Though a marvelous contribution, I am left wondering how his theory of social space incorporates notions of “ancient Mediterranean.”

Part 4 considers ways in which magic might serve to describe “a quality of social or material dynamics or of communication itself” (606). Discussion in Part 4 is intended to be tentative and provocative, not exhaustive.

In chapter 22, David Frankfurter considers how speech may be considered ‘magic’ by describing it in terms of a speech act. First, he describes what constitutes a speech act, highlighting important terms like illocutionary, perlocutionary, and functionality. Though speech acts do not necessarily carry magical force, “there exist certain types of speech that function in their very utterance to change things in the world, or to create a situation that invites change” (613). Second, he applies this model to epoide and charm, sacred and liturgical speech, and other worldly speech. For each, the magical aspect is the shift to divine sources of language or the “phonetic zone of the gods” (624).

In chapter 23, David Frankfurter considers how writing functions as magic “long after the moment of vocalization” (627) and how the written word in antiquity can be “a magic that revolved around the ideas of graphically representing speech” (629). He subsequently examines multiple traditions and links them together. First, he observes how hieroglyphs, as substitutes for vocal utterance could be washed off and transferred as “a concrete medium for the “power” of the word, name, god, or myth that is signified” (635). Second, drawing attention to Greek writing, ritual orality, and voces magicae, Frankfurter describes how voces magicae served to imitate the speech of gods based on the Greek philosophical notion of stoicheia. Third, he identified five ways in which Greek letters functioned as iconic media in a way akin to Egyptian hieroglyphs (“Ephesian letters”; nomina sacra; Greek alphabet as secretly pictographic; isopsephy/gematria; and cryptography). Finally, Frankfurter describes how characteres are linked to Egyptian hieroglyphs in image, literature, and amulets through merging Greek magic “with the concrete efficacy of the visual signifier in Egyptian magic” (656). With approach to magic, it “offers a qualitative evaluation of the significance and function of writing, or a form of writing” (657).

In chapter 24, Frankfurter considers the materiality of magic, focusing on “material media as (a) primary contexts for… religious and ritual experience and (b) as possessing and directing agency in the world” (660-661). Fundamental for him is identifying how agent authors perceived materials as acting, fixed sympathetic forces or agents. Combined as an assemblage, such sympathetic forces are powerful active groups of agents. In some cases, such as figurines, materials as agents demand responses within ceremonies and ritual. Additionally, through social context and recognizability, a sort of agency may be created in an object, such as a ritual object or assemblage linked to myth and immediate ritual efficacy as a mediating object. So, at base, Frankfurter pushes for a model of magic and materiality wherein “Even if its agency derives ultimately from a god, hero, ancestor, or ritual expert, the amulet, blessing, or assemblage bears that agency in its material form” (676). This approach seems particularly promising beyond the realm of magic, especially when considering how idols functioned in the ancient Near East.

In chapter 25, Naomi Janowitz examines how “magic” can explain certain aspects of mysticism through a notion of magical language. She looks at ancient linguistic ideologies and analyzes them: words as representations of divinity via the Derveni Papyrus and Socrates, words as divine speech via the Hekhalot hymns, transformation by divine names via Hekhalot Rabbati and Gospel of the Egyptians, and words, sounds, and breath via Mithras liturgy.

In chapter 26, Sarah Iles Johnston examines the connection between theurgy and magic. First, she offers a concise history of theurgy, especially highlighting its relation to magic and Jewish traditions. Theurgy originates out of Middle Platonic philosophy. Through this Platonist metaphysical framework, Johnston describes various ritual processes for ascension. Though scholars often approach theurgy as magic, Johnston presents theurgy as something distinct form magic based on extant theurgical texts. This contribution is an excellent overview of how theurgy has been used through history.

In chapter 27, David Frankfurter examine sway in which magic can be used when linked to the concept of religion, not being crude or derogatory. This is necessary because, evening setting aside problematic conceptions of religion versus magic, “we must reckon with some kind of cultural relationship between – in gross terms – official forms of religion and the forms represented in the magical texts and ritual materials” (721). So, Frankfurter frames magic as drawing from “authoritative tradition,” namely an appeal to religious authority whether or not it is based in historical reality, As such, he defines magic as “the invocation and deployment of an authoritative tradition in a local performative context through the creative agency of a ritual expert and involving various ritual media” (722). By incorporating Robert Redfield’s Great Tradition and Little Tradition, he further specifies magic as “the ritual or material context in which a Great Tradition (that may or may not be associated with living cults or temples) is interpreted by a ritual expert, located in time and space, and linked with particular social circumstances” (725). Great Tradition is identifiable via iconography, written vs. oral, and local social agency as mediated by Great Tradition. He offers three gradations of such mediation through which magic attains efficacy: direct mediation of an active religious institution, ritual experts improvising elements of a living or moribund institution, and mediation of an invented Great Tradition. At base, though an imperfect model, magic ritual is a more localized form of religious religion. Though a potentially promising approach, I wonder how it may be adjusted for particular historical contexts and how we may more precisely describe the Greater Tradition. For example, Frankfurter claims that Jewish ritual experts practically invented the tradition of Solomon as an exorcist. As a Great Tradition, what is the relationship between Solomon as an exorcist and the Hebrew Bible? In other words, a method should be developed in order to specify the ritual specialist’s perception of the Great Tradition.

In chapter 28, Esther Eidinow considers “magic” a heuristic means for understanding social tension by analyzing aggressive magical practices. Through social conflict discourses within texts, Eidenow identifies social dynamics, including various contexts, motivations, and assumptions regarding social tension, questioning why certain social tensions arise in communities from the perspective of magic. Such an approach Eidinow suggests, is indicative of emotion, thereby enabling a better understanding of social dynamics and tensions. Second, she suggests magic points towards social tensions inasmuch as magical accusations can function as a form of gossip. Thus, she argues that magic from her perspective may only be understood in context of the society and culture. Finally, she offers thoughts about how subsequent scholarship should integrate magical studies.

Review: “An Obituary for “Wisdom Literature”: The Birth, Death, and Intertextual Reintegration of a Biblical Corpus” by Will Kynes

Will Kynes. An Obituary for “Wisdom Literature”: The Birth, Death, and Intertextual Reintegration of a Biblical Corpus. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2019. XVIII + 324.

“Wisdom Literature” as a generic category has been used for centuries. Will Kynes’ central aim in An Obituary for “Wisdom Literature” is to critically analyze the category of “Wisdom Literature” and provide an alternative approach to the corpus via intertextual reintegration. In what follows, I will summarize the volume and provide subsequent critical reflection.

In Chapter One, Will Kynes describes how modern scholarship’s use of the category “Wisdom Literature” is fundamentally flawed. Often times, “Wisdom” becomes a generic or thematic category which obscures biblical texts. As such, up till now, only two options have been available: amputate the category all-together or allow pan-sapientalism to contaminate all biblical texts. He substantiates his argument by identifying unintended consequences of the category (adaption of “Wisdom Literature” into Assyriology and Egyptology; presupposition of modern categories within texts; connection of “Wisdom Literature” to an administrative scribal class; the near universal application of “Wisdom Literature” to the biblical corpus), briefly reviewing 20th and 21st century scholarship about “Wisdom Literature” (illuminating how the criteria for “Wisdom Literature” remains inconclusive, hazy, and subjective), diagnosing particular issues of “Wisdom Literature” (pan-sapientalism with in the wisdom category; failed attempts to treat the issue via genre and scribal setting; and potential future problems in associating the entire Hebrew Bible with wisdom literature), and identifying similar issues in biblical studies (Psalter, Qumran, ancient Near East, and Pan-Deuteronomism). Hinting towards subsequent chapters, he proposes an approach via intertextual connections in order to deal with what has traditionally been considered “Wisdom Literature.”

In Chapter Two, Kynes examines how ancient textual traditions engage with what are typically considered Wisdom literature. He does this in order to determine if the “wisdom category has an ancient pedigree” (60). First, drawing from groupings of texts in early Christian literature, he highlights how these groupings, though akin to “wisdom” groupings, include no explanation or category as to why they are grouped together. Within the Writings, what Kynes calls the Hebrew order, the wisdom texts appear not to be correlated with wisdom as a genre proper. Likewise, although texts typically grouped as wisdom literature appear in Greek texts, the classification is not equivalent to wisdom, being more united through the notion of didactiscism. Second concerning association between Solomon and texts, the association is not reflective of genre. Even within these associations, Jewish and Christian traditions recognize the diversity of ‘Solomonic’ texts and exclude Job. Third, he notes that while features are common to traditional “wisdom” texts, shared characteristics are not strong enough “that they could be considered a distinctive category” (75). Fourth, he shows how the Hebrew Bible shows no evidence for wisdom (חכמה) as an emic genre category. Fifth, he shows how medieval interpreters had no wisdom category, though this section employs far less textual support and could be significantly improved. Having outlined the flimsy foundations off wisdom’s ancient pedigree, he effectively illustrates that the origins of “Wisdom” must be sought in the modern period.

In Chapter Three, Kynes continues describes the origins of wisdom of a literary, generic category. Tracking the origins of ‘wisdom’ through footnotes and references, he suggests that Johann Bruch’s Weisheits-Lehre der Hebraer (1851) is the first place wherein the notion of ‘wisdom’ as a generic category appears. While various figures like Hegel, Vatke, Herder, Schleiermacher, and others influenced Bruch’s work, Bruch’s investigation of Hebrew “philosophy”, or as he calls it “wisdom teaching,” is the first synthesis of trends in biblical scholarship and philosophy, resulting in a category “Wisdom Literature.” Though subsequent scholars pushed against Bruch, they, nonetheless, framed “their interpretation of these texts… by Bruch’s association of these texts with philosophy and against theocracy” (100). As such, the origins of ‘wisdom’ as a generic category are fundamentally flawed, being primarily the result of 19th century philosophical discourse and theological concern. Moreover, “the definition of Wisdom Literature is so vague that it invites interpreters to import their own modern presuppositions into the texts to fill it out” (103).

In Chapter Four, Kynes lays out a new way to think about and to approach the problem of genre. He frames his approach as a movement away from traditional taxonomic and rigid approaches. First, he describes genre as “nothing more than a formalized version of intertextuality” (110), drawing attention to how generic classification varies based on the horizon of expectations. As such, he suggests that “any genre-driven interpretation… constantly runs the risk of deforming a text’s interpretation by illegitimately restricting its manifold significant intertextual connections” (112). To explain how genres emerge, then, he suggests that they emerge as “”symbols of relationship”… through readers’ perceptions of the patterns of affiliations between texts” (114). As such, genre is only valid relative to a reader’s position socially and culturally. To elucidate how a reader stands in relation to a text as it concerns genre, Kynes draws from conceptual blending theory, a two stage process of identifying internal relations between texts and the giving shape to the relations, resulting in genre.

A significant factor in conceptual blending is accounting for cultural influences, namely “how the genres that readers apply to the text are themselves shaped by historical and ideological forces” (122). He suggests that network theory serves to offer “a helpful means of understanding the culturally influenced nature of this emergence of genres” (123). The aforementioned discussion contributes to what he calls a multidimensional approach to genre, where genre is relative to one’s location, just as the Orion constellation is different based on an individuals location in the solar system. In doing so, he highlights “the plurality of texts, genres, and subject positions” (126).

As a consequence, genre, he suggests, is helpful inasmuch as it encourages comparison of textual groupings relative to texts’ history of interpretation and reception. Wisdom, then, may be understood as a relative and partial generic classification. Moreover, his approach to genre deals with issues of particularity/generality and subjectivity/objectivity by enabling interpreters to triangulate meaning, thereby resulting in “more objective interpretation” (140). Likewise it accounts for stability and change in generic classifications. This discussion, Kynes notes, is equally important for other biblical categories.

In Chapter Five, Kynes considers various genre networks of Job. First, he highlights three problems with reading Job as wisdom literature: (1) canonical division, preventing scholars from associating Job with non-wisdom texts, especially with regard to literary re-use; (2) theological abstraction with a perception of job as a didactic, philosophical text; (3) and hermeneutical limitations, though it is unclear what he means. Second, Kynes describes a wide variety of ways that scholars have described the genre of Job, including pre-19th century, ancient Near East, adapted, and meta generic distinctions. Taking these various perspectives into consideration, he suggests that the network approach may offer a more “comprehensive understanding of its meaning”; however, he doesn’t show how the network approach yields new analysis or results about Job.

In Chapter Six, Kynes considers Ecclesiastes in light of his methodology. First, he provides an overview of the pervasive confusion surrounding the nature of Ecclesiastes. Through such confusion, though, the assumption that Ecclesiastics contributes to wisdom literature remained consistent and unexamined. As a result, Ecclesiastes runs into the same issues as Job: canonical separation, theological abstraction, and hermeneutical limitation. Next, he describes the intertextual network of Ecclesiastes from three perspectives: genres before “Wisdom Literature” (Megilloth, poetry, solomonic collection), other genre groupings (Torah, history, prophecy, and apocalyptic), and genres from the ancient world, which Kynes claims often limit interpretation. Like the chapter on Job, he suggests that the multiperspectival network approach “will enable readers to see these diverse features more clearly” (217).

In Chapter Seven, Kynes considers Proverbs with regard to his new model. As with previous chapters, he initially illustrates how Proverb’s modern categorization as Wisdom Literature problematically results in canonical separation, theological abstraction, and hermeneutical limitation. Next, he outlines pre-Wisdom Literature generic groupings.: Sefrei Emet, poetry, and Solomonic collection. In terms of Solomon’s wisdom, he identifies four sub-genres: political education, ethical paraenessis, cultic guidance, and inspired instruction. Third, he describes Proverbs as part of ancient Near East groupings. Finally, he synthesizes these genres as part of his network approach, highlighting that boundaries and borderlines between such genres should be temporary and permeable (242).

Offering closing notes, Kynes summarizes his chapters and describes wisdom as a genre category to be dead. Instead, he proposes moving forward in a way that only uses wisdom as a concept and not as a genre.

Part One (Historical Metacriticism; Chapters 1-3) is by far the most outstanding portion of the volume. He provides sharp, well-thought out criticism of recent scholarship about Wisdom Literature. His work in Part One is akin to Talal Asad’s Genealogies of Religion, Jonathan Z. Smith’s “Religion, Religions, Religious”,  or David Lambert’s How Repentance Became Biblical with regard to the penitential lens inasmuch as Kynes clearly and carefully illustrates how the modern origins of the category distort objects under analysis. Undoubtedly, Part One is essential reading for biblical scholars.

Part Two (Chapter 4), wherein Kynes lays out a new model for approaching texts, is less developed. First, although Kynes cites theorists like Bakhtin, Frow, Geertz, Duff, and Bloom as he discusses intertextuality, he does not mention a wide variety of other important critics and interlocutors: Michael Holquist, William Irwin, Jenny Luarent, H.P. Mai, Russel Meek (certain articles), Piotr Michalowski, Geoffrey Miller, H.F. Plett, Christopher Hays, Lyle Eslinger, etc.. He also excludes the most important figure for intertextuality, namely Julia Kristeva, a French literary critic known for her work on intertextuality. To develop an entire method of “intertextuality” without mentioning Kristeva is akin to developing a method for Pentateuchal source criticism without referencing or acknowledging Julius Wellhausen. For example, Kristeva does not support the notion of genre in her writings. For Kristeva, genre carried a negative charge, perceived as (a) carrying a power of precedent based on ‘convention’ and ‘decorum’; and (b) and “as a repressive mechanism by which cultural institutions sought to classify, commodify and control artistic production.” Such criticism of genre is also present in Derrida, Barthes, Maurice Blanchot, and Benedetto Croce, as early as 1900 [1]. As such, Kynes’ uncritical combination of genre and intertextuality needs to be justified through engagement with, not just citation of, literary critics and interlocutors.

Additionally, Kynes’ entire methodology is based on a very particular definition of genre: it is “nothing more than a formalized version of intertextuality” (110). Setting aside the previous criticisms of Kynes’ combination of intertextuality and genre, his restricted definition essentially sidesteps and ignores any definitions of genre which interlocutors from chapters 5, 6, and 7 may have held. As such, any criticisms of their work with regard to genre is questionable because their understandings of genre is subordinated to his understanding of genre.

Concerning the actual methodology, it is unclear how his approach is helpful for biblical scholarship. In Chapter 4, wherein he presents his methodology, he includes multiple graphic illustrations in order to demonstrate how people conceptualize the relationship between texts. Chapters 5, 6, and 7, though, do not use the graphic illustrations which make clear his approach to genre as an intertextual grouping. Moreover, although he describes how scholars identify distinct generic groupings, he never triangulates various generic groupings in order to provide a more objective interpretation (see summary of chapter 4). That is to say, Kynes seems never to demonstrate the network approach as an effective tool and method for analysis of biblical texts.

Finally, though Kynes’ argument for the origins of wisdom literature in the 18th and 19th centuries CE is solid, it is too much to say that “[to] avoid perpetuating the hermeneutical distortions Wisdom has created, the field must recognize that the taxonomic category has been detrimental and is now dead” (245). In the field of religious studies, most scholars recognize “religion” as a modern, second-order category; however, most scholars have not concluded that religion is dead. Rather, religion must be approached in a critical and nuanced manner, the concept or genre explained in relation to the particular historical or literary context. Such an approach to the notion of Wisdom Literature is more reasonable; any commentary on Wisdom Literature must define the particular parameters of the category.

In conclusion, Kynes’ An Obituary for “Wisdom Literature” is invaluable in terms of how it traces the genealogy of wisdom as a generic category; however, the alternative methodology and approach proposed by Kynes needs refining before it can be useful for biblical scholarship.

[1] Duff, David. “Intertextuality versus Genre Theory: Bakhtin, Kristeva and the Question of Genre.” In Paragraph Vol. 25, No. 1 (2002): 54-73.


“The Epic of Gilgamesh” translated and edited by Benjamin Foster

EpicFoster, Benjamin (translator and editor). The Epic of Gilgamesh. 2nd Edition. New York: 2019, W. W. Norton & Company.  256 pp, $18.12 (paperback).

Originally published in 2001, the 2nd edition of the Norton Critical Edition of The Epic of Gilgamesh offers a revised and expanded translation of text. Drawing especially from the critical edition of The Epic of Gilgamesh published by Andrew George (2003), a translation by Stefan Maul (2005), new manuscripts, and philological developments, Benjamin Foster’s translation is, by far, the most accessible, accurate, and precise translation of the ancient text, especially inasmuch as he retains the poetic rhythm of the Akkadian original.

In terms of specific additions to this volume, he includes a variety of updated translations, both for the Sumerian and Akkadian texts, as well as a helpful glossary. Now absent from the volume are articles by Rivkah Harris (“Images of Women int he Gilgamesh Epic”) and Hillary Major (“Gilgamesh Remembers a Dream”). Instead, he includes two additionally critical essays, beyond essays by William Moran and Thorkild Jacobsen which were in the 1st edition and are in the 2nd edition. The first, by Susan Ackerman, explores the liminal role of woman throughout the narrative of the epic. She shows how they “function simultaneously as mirrors of the liminal imagery that predominates in the Epic’s text and as crucial linchpins that facilitate the narrative’s movement through the phases of the rites-of-passage model” (225). The second essay, by Andrew George, navigates the tension between individual fate and collective destiny in the narrative of the epic. He takes various examples from world literature as points of comparison, making it very suitable and helpful in a course about world literature.

Only one discussion is absent in the volume, which should be included: the relationship between iconography and literature. Throughout the volume, Foster includes multiple examples of artifacts and iconography from the ancient Near East. For example, in Tablet I, wherein the wall of Uruk is described, Foster includes a seal impression of people atop the walls of Uruk (4). As an individual relatively well-versed in the relationship between iconography and text, I am not inclined to claim or to think that the seal impression is directly related to the text; however, non-specialists, the vast majority of whom will read this volume, may assume that the iconography is directly related to the text. This, in my view, is problematic. As such, Foster should have provided an explanation concerning the relationship between the ancient images and the ancient text, either in the introduction or a footnote.

Overall, I highly recommend The Epic of Gilgamesh edited and translated by Benjamin Foster. It is particularly valuable for reading by general audiences or use in introductory courses about the Hebrew Bible, ancient Near Eastern history and literature, or world literature. Moreover, at a price of $18.12, it is a great addition to a public and Middle School/High School libraries, classrooms, and personal book collections.



Review: A History of the Kingdom of Israel by Edward Lipinski

Edward Lipinski. A History of the Kingdom of Israel. Orientalia Lovaniensia Analecta 275. Leuven: Peeters, 2018. xii + 200 pp..

Edward Lipinski is most well known as a philologist, especially for his work with Old Aramaic and Phoenician onomastics and inscriptions. In A History of the Kingdom of Israel, he leverages that background to provide a brief account of ancient Israelite history. First, I will provide a summary of Lipinksi’s historical re-construction of ancient Israel. Subsequently, I will offer critical reflections on his construction of ancient Israelite history.

Though Lipinski doesn’t include methodological discussion proper, he does put forth a few key principles in the foreword (XI-XII). First, he notes that, though biblical texts can be “examined as historical sources for the first millennium B.C.,” they should be studied along with “Egyptian Akkadian, Aramaic, Phoenician, Moabite, Old Arabian, Greek sources from those times” (XI). Second, concerning the proto-history of ancient Israel, he suggests that a few elements are important: Egyptian and Akkadian sources from the 2nd millennium BCE, archaeology, and “ethnographic studies of tribal regroupings and integrations” (XI). Third, he provides a short summary of his arguments.

In Chapter One, Lipinski focuses on the proto-history of ancient Israel. He correctly notes that narratives in the Pentateuch are unhelpful for sketching a proto-history of “biblical” Israel. Even so, he suggests that the “Old Hebrew literature, preserved in the Bible” retains “some legal traditions, tribal names, the core of certain folk tales or poems [that] may date from those times” (1). As such, he focuses on tribal units in Israel during the 2nd millennium BCE. He supports this notion methodologically by  drawing an analogy with a single ethnographic study of Arabs in Moab from 1908. For Lipinski, this provides a solid foundation for thinking of 2nd millennium BCE tribal units as tribes who “had to renounce his former appellation and tribal units” and marry into a new tribal unit for membership (2). This, apparently, provides the “institutional background of name changing” in texts like Genesis (2).

Next, drawing especially from the Egyptian Execration Texts, Lipinski suggests that various tribal references in the Hebrew Bible are referenced in the early 2nd millennium: “The great house of Joseph”; Simeon, Jacob-El, Reuben, Abram (Hatt), Mount Yahwe-El, Shasu, Israel, and the ‘Apiru. For each proto-historical tribe, he suggests a possible geographic location in the Levant. Next, he provides brief consideration of the deportation and exodus of the Shasu people. Moreover, he suggests that Mount Nebo and Se’ir was originally the location for the Yahwistic cult of El. These various “tribes,” he guesses, coalesced into the Kingdom of Israel in the 1st millennium BCE.

In Chapter Two, Lipinski attempts to outline how the nomadic and semi-nomadic pastoralists coalesced into urban and agricultural parts of the population, even though he notes that this “cannot be observed on sound archaeological evidence” (33). Drawing from various Biblical texts, El-Amarna correspondence, the Song of Deborah, Joshua, and other texts, Lipinski attempts to identify the location for each tribe as referred to in the Song of Deborah. Strangely, though he claims to recognize that the Bible is not a history book, he nonetheless seems to assume that the Hebrew Bible retains historically accurate and precise oral traditions. He does the same with the Maakathite and Geshurites. As for his history of the “Period of the Judges,” he notes that no historical statements can be made about the “judges” of Israel. Even so, he claims that in the 10th century “Israelites became aware that the time had come to replace the rule of the “judges” and of army chiefs by a stable authority, capable of opposing the pressure of the Philistines” (43). He garners evidence from 1 Sam 8:4-5 and an ostracon from Khirbet Qeiyafa, which he reads as “The men and the chiefs will institute the kingship” (46). He also considers 2 Sam 11:2-12, 23 as helpful for considering David’s capture of Jerusalem “if we relay on the historical background hidden behind the account” (48), a notion he doesn’t explain.

Following this, he lays out the reigns of Saul/Ishbaal, David and Solomon, Jeroboam I, and a few subsequent kings. His primary evidence for this comes from Biblical texts, including Kings, LXX, Samuel, and Chronicles. Occasionally, he references an archaeological site to help him with an aspect of his argument.

In Chapter Three, Lipinski shifts to the Omride dynasty. First, discussing the reign of Omri, he offers various possibilities considering the ethnic origins of Omri, drawing from Hurrian, Old Arabian, and Egyptian onomastics and toponyms. He also discusses the Mesha Stele, from which he emphasizes the claim that Omri was a “vigorous general” who had occupied a large part of the Transjordan, as well as regions at the border of Aram-Damascus. He also attempts to provide clarity concerning chronology with regard to the Mesha Stele, references to the House of Omri in Neo-Assyrian documents, the Hebrew Bible, and the Tel Dan inscription. Next, drawing from “The archival document used by the Deuteronomistic redactor” that was “damaged on the right side,” Lipinski proposes twelve districts in Omri’s reign (72). Subsequently, he describes how the Omride dynasty experienced good economic relations with Phoenicia. Finally, through the next 28 pages, he focuses on the history surrounding each king subsequent to Omri.

Chapter Four deals with the downfall of Israel and the Assyrian conquest. Like other discussions, he focuses more extensively on corroborating the Biblical narrative with other Near Eastern inscriptions, such as those by Tiglath-pileser III. He divides his discussion into events leading up to the siege of Samaria, the siege itself, the issue of deportees themselves, and deportees to Samaria. Echoing Finkelstein and Broshi, Lipinski perpetuates the idea of “mass emigration of Israelites to Jerusalem and Judah after 722 B.C.” (126). Because the volume is primarily focused on Israel, he only includes two short paragraphs about the steady decline of Jerusalem and its eventual destruction in 587 BCE.

Chapter Five attempts to outline the religion of Israel. Though recognizing the centrality of El in Israelite religion, he primarily focuses on religious centers, including Shechem, Bethel, and Shiloh. Moreover, dealing with issues of the Asherah, he argues the term primarily designates a holy site marked by the presence of a sacred grove, the term only beginning to denote a “heathenish sacred tree” in the Persian period. Likewise, he notes that the former prophets and priestly teachings were active, though he primarily draws from Biblical narrative. Finally, he outlines various foreign cults which may have been present in 7th century Samaria, drawing primarily from the Aramaic variant translations found in the marginal notes of the Codex Reuchlinianus of the prophets.

Chapter Six briefly reviews the history of Samaria under Achaemenid rule. It primarily draws from the Wadi Daliyeh Samaria Papyri. He offers much philological analysis, focusing especially on toponyms and onomastics. With this information, he proposes a chronology for the governors of Samaria during Achaemenid rule.

Some of Lipinksi’s philological analyses are notable. For example, he has a helpful philological analysis of the Wadi Daliyeh Samaria Papyri, interacting extensively with D.M. Gropp’s Wadi Daliyeh II. The Samaria Papyri from Wadi Daliyeh (2001). Likewise, throughout the volume, he offers intriguing philological analyses of various onomastic data and inscriptions.

Such analyses, though, are far outweighed by poor methodology and historical construction. For this, four trends throughout the volume will be addressed: onomastics, toponyms, and history; the Hebrew Bible as a historical source; historical sources (primary and secondary); and assertions.

First, Lipinski’s use of onomastics and toponyms for reconstructing history is a consistent problem. To demonstrate this, a few examples are cited below:

–          In order to reconstruct the “Proto-history” of ancient Israel, Lipinski argues that the house of Joseph “is attested already in the early second millennium B.C. by the Execration Texts” (2). He notes the 15th century BCE Egyptian writing Y-š3-p-i-3-r. He then notes that this writing may point to Yasuf in the hill country as the core of a tribal area, 20 km south of Samaria. He provides similar discussion for Simeon, Jacob-El, Reuben, Abram, and Mount Yahwe-El. In other words, he considers 2nd millennium toponyms, toponyms in the Biblical narrative, and links them linguistically in order to argue that the tribes of “Israel” existed as distinct entities as early as the 14th century BCE. This argument is undoubtedly problematic because Lipinski draws from source material which was written nearly a millennium prior. As such, claims for tribal continuity are extremely conjectural.

–          In terms of history, he claims that in the 10th century, the Israelites “became aware that the time had come to replace the rule of the “judges” and of army chiefs by a stable authority, capable of opposing the pressure of the Philistines (43). He rightly notes that the texts in 1 Sam 9-11 are unhelpful for history writing. Instead, he turns to a single ostracon from Khirbet Qeiyafa which “seems to indicate that elders representing local communities were chosen in various centres to express their will and their choice at a general assembly of the Israelite tribes… The story of Saul’s choice at Gilgal… seems to correspond best to such a reconstruction of events” (43). Lipinski translates: “the gathering of men and chiefs will bring forth a king” or “will institute kinghood.” Two comments are in order. First, though this is a possible reading, more discussion concerning this ostracon must be done before affirmatively stating that this is the earliest demonstrating a shift to kingship among the Israelite population. Second, Lipinski’s characterization of Israelites acting in response to Philistine pressure is problematic. Though Philistines likely were a threat to a small degree, it is too much to imply that they are the reason for the emergence of Israelite kingship. In fact, his own statement betrays a historical understanding which is fundamentally based in the biblical text. Taking these points together, Lipinski’s method of linking an under-discussed inscription with the assumption of Philistia as the cause for Israelite kingship results in historical reconstruction which is stands upon an uneven, unstable, and weak foundation.

–          In Chapter Three, Lipinski attempts to define the possible origins of Omri on the basis of his name. On the basis of Neo-Assyrian writing, he raises the possibility that Omri is derived from the Hurrian word hamuri. This is plausible; however, he takes his discussion too far into the realm of conjecture. On the basis of the Hurrian origins of Omri’s name and the lack of a patronymic, Lipinski suggests that Omri “did not belong to a well-known clan… One wonders therefore whether Omri was not a native of Rehob” (67). Essentially, Lipinski gathers onomastic evidence alone in order to conjecture on Omri’s origins. His use of onomastics as a means of identifying ethnic origins with such little evidence is methodologically unsound, resulting in not historical plausibility but conjecture.

Second, Lipinski’s use of the Hebrew Bible as a historical source is questionable. In his discussion about Omri and Ahab, he draws from 1 Kings 4:8-19 as a source for the division of Israel during the reign of the Omrides. He briefly comments that mention of Solomon’s two daughters is from another source. Subsequently, he notes that the “archival document used by the Deuteronomistic redactor in I King 4 was damaged on its right side, as shown by the missing names of several prefects, whose sole patronymics were preserved” (72). His use of 1 Kings 4 as an archival document used by the Deuteronomistic redactor is problematic on multiple fronts. First, it is plausible that 1 Kings 4 is derived from an archival document; however, in its current status, it is not an archival document but part of a larger narrative text, nor do we possess the archival document from which 1 Kings 4 draws. As such, Lipinski too quickly and uncritically asserts that 1 Kings 4:8-19 is, in fact, derived from an archival document. Without any evidence, the claims itself is questionable. Second, even if we accept the premise that 1 Kings 4:8-19 was copied from an archival document, his claims that the “archival document… was damaged on its right side” (72) is entirely conjectural. That is to say, he doesn’t take into consideration possible explanations via literary analysis, but instead provides mere conjecture. Third, he notes that “the mention of two daughters of Solomon in I Kings 4, 11 and 15 must come from another source” (72); however, Lipinski provides no further discussion about what this “other source” may have been or how this “other source” became intertwined within the archival document copied into 1 Kings 4:8-19. Fourth, and in light of all the previous points, his use of the Hebrew Bible is problematic inasmuch as it is based on an uncritical reading of the text, or at least unsubstantiated interpretations of the text, providing no thorough argumentation about the text itself or attempts to describe the construction of the text itself. Instead, Lipinski just offers conjecture as a form of evidence in order to use 1 Kings 4:8-19 as a historical source reflecting the reign of the Omrides.

In brief, other examples of this include, though are not limited to, use of Gen 31:13 and 35:7 to assert that the “cult of El at Bethel obviously goes back to the Bronze Age and to Y-h-w3-3 of the Shasu pastoralists” (135), poor substantiation for textual emendation of Ex. 34 to reflect the history of Israelite religion (149), and Deut 32:49-50a (which Lipinski appears to date to the 12th century BCE) as evidence of Mount Nebo as a Yahwistic sanctuary in the 9th century BCE.

Third, some choices in Lipinski’s source material is questionable, both primary and secondary. In terms of primary material, Lipinski describes evidence for foreign cults in 7th century Samaria. He draws from the Deuteronomistic account in 2 Kings 17:24-33; however, in order to argue to evidence of foreign cults in Samaria during the 7th century BCE, he draws from the “variant Aramaic translations preserved in the marginal notes of the Codex Reuchlinianus of the prophets” (150). For example, concerning the line “The men of Babylon made Succoth-benoth,” he suggests that the phrase skwt bnwt should translate as ywnt’ w’prhwh’, “the dove and her brood,” in agreement with the marginal note of the Codex Reuchlinianus (150). In his own words, it is “undoubtedly a reference to the anti-Samaritan account about the dove worshipped by Samaritans,” evidenced in the Talmud of Jerusalem, Lucian of Samosata, and Diodorus Siculus. Of these source, Diodorus Siculus is a 1st century BCE authors. Lucian of Samosata lived as early as the 2nd century CE. The Jerusalem Talmud is later. What this indicates, then, is that the evidence used to justify Lipinski’s preference for the marginal notes of Codex Reuchlinianus is far too late to support his argument of religion in Samaria during the 7th century BCE. That is to say, while the line of evidence brought forth by Lipinski may be helpful for considering religion in the region between the 1st century BCE and the 4th century CE, it is methodological problematic to apply those results to the historical situation of the 7th century BCE.

In terms of secondary material, I was surprised by the lack of references to pertinent studies concerning many subjects with which Lipinski deals. A few examples demonstrate this point well. First, when discussing the Asherah in ancient Israel, Lipinski does not engage with important works like Nadav Naaman and Nurit Lissovsky, “Kuntillet ‘Ajrud, Sacred Tress and the Asherah” (2008) and Mark Smith, The Early History of God, 2nd ed. (2002). Second, in his discussion of religion in Samaria during the 8th and 7th century, he fails to recognize the Neo-Assyrian presence in Samaria after 734 BCE, as shown by Shawn Zelig Aster and Avraham Faust, “Administrative Texts, Royal Inscriptions, and Neo-Assyrian Administration in the Southern Levant” (2015). This study is important because it is documented evidence of a foreign entity with distinct religious practices from Israel and Judah. As such, it is particularly important for the discussion of religion in 7th century Samaria. Third, as far as I could see, there was little to no discussion about the economy of the region, especially the importance of olive oil production in Israel during the 9th and 8th centuries BCE, as described in Avraham Faust, “The Interests of the Assyrian Empire in the West” (2011), 66-68. Fourth, he never refers to or engages with the more comprehensive history by Israel Finkelstein, The Forgotten Kingdom (2013). Fifth, concerning the issue of “mass emigration” of Israel (126) in the 8th century BCE, he does not mention the response to M. Broshi and Finkelstein by Nadav Na’aman, “The Growth and Development of Judah and Jerusalem in the Eight Century BCE: A Rejoinder” (2009). Though just a small sample, there is a large amount of scholarship with which Lipinski does not engage.

Fourth, a large portion of Lipinski’s rhetoric regularly makes unsubstantiated assertions. Consider the following examples: regarding Ziklag, “This may be linked to the occupation by Philistines and David’s presence in its “fortress”… which could have served later as basis for the seizure of Jerusalem” (51); “One could assume therefore that some shasu people of the passage quoted above… were deported also from this area. If this hypothesis is correct…” (29); “The original text of v. 27b-29 was probably read as follows,” without offering any substantiation; “This record” in III Kings 12:24a of the LXX “does not look like fictitious information with invented figures and it should be based on an authentic source” (55), without any evidence or discussion as to his reasoning; various names of Judean Israelites “seem to imply a dangerous situation, even the deportation, but the fact that these men were “visitors” at Assur apparently shows a certain liberty of action and movement,” a poor use of onomastic data (121); concerning Abimelek being made king, “This happened in the period of the “judges”, probably in the 11th century B.C., after Abimelek has been supplied with silver from the “House of the Lord of the Covenant” (Judg. 9, 4-6). This was very likely the sanctuary of God heading the tribal federation of Israel” (130), offering no substantiation and employing biblical chronology for developing his history; concerning Hos. 4:13 and without any evidence, “This reference to the terebinth and the mountain-tops implies an allusion to Mount Ebal and to Mount Gerizim” (131); and the House of Yahweh “at Shechem, recorded in Josh. 24, 26, was presumably destroyed by Josiah, king of Judah” (131). All these quotations exemplify how Lipinski regularly makes unsubstantiated assertions in order to support his overall arguments.

In conclusion, I cannot recommend Edward Lipinski’s A History of the Kingdom of Israel. Though there is occasionally an interesting comment or discussion, it is far outweighed by poor methodology and unsubstantiated claims.

“Cuneiform in Canaan: The Next Generation” edited by Wayne Horowitz, Takayoshi Oshima, and Seth Sanders

Wayne Horowitz, Takayoshia Oshima, and Seth Sanders (eds.). Cuneiform in Canaan: The Next Generation. 2nd ed. University Park, Pennsylvania: Eisenbrauns, 2018.

Cuneiform in Canaan was originally published in 2006 through the Israel Exploration Society. With the uncovering of various new cuneiform objects in Israel since 2006, Star Trek Cuneiform in Canaan: The Next Generation includes an updated catalogue. Likewise, the authors include updated bibliographic references. As with the original volume, Cuneiform in Canaan is intended to be used in conjunction with other, more detailed discussions. As such, editions in the volume are minimalistic in nature.

97 objects are discussed through the volume, usually including general information and bibliography, transliteration/translation, and commentary. New editions included in Cuneiform in Canaan are Hazor 16-18, Jerusalem 1-2, and Megiddo 6. Thus, for these entries, Cuneiform in Canaan is itself one of the more authoritative editions. In what follows, I will briefly describe each new entry.

Hazor 16 is a small administrative docket. It sheds light on the single line of Hazor 14, GADA ba-ab-na-tum, clarifying that GADA and ba-ab-na-tum are distinct items. Hazor 17 is a red clay liver model, akin to the Hazor 2 and 3 liver models. This object is particularly notable for the writing DINGIR-lum4, even though the remainder of the text lacks mimmation. Hazor 18 is a fragment from a law collection.

Jerusalem 1 and 2 are two Late Bronze Age letter fragments. Unfortunately, these fragments are too small to translate a single sentence. On the basis of petrographic analysis, the editors argue that Jerusalem 1 is from Jerusalem and Jerusalem 2 is from Egypt.

Megiddo 6 is a Late Bronze Age administrative document discovered by a visitor to Tel Megiddo. The basic structure of the text is as follows: 10 UDU.ḪI.A a-na PN. As such, the editors, following Cogan (2013) suggest it is some sort of payment or celebratory act for individuals.

Another entry with significant developments is Beth Shemesh 1, in Part III Alphabetic Cuneiform Texts. Though known to be an abecedary already, a recent publication concerning a 15th century Theban ostracon serves as further evidence for two branches of alphabetical order in the 2nd millennium BCE. As such, though the editors refer to Ben Haring (2015) and H.-W. Fisher-Elfert and M. Krebernik (2016), it is unclear why they did not refer to an equally important abecedary object discovered on the north-eastern border of Jordan and recently published in 2015, a Thamudic B Abecedary in South Semitic letter order [1].

The editors of Cuneiform in Canaan also offer something for scholars to look forward to. These include a reference to a new edition of Qaqun 1 (Esarhaddon Stela Fragment) being prepared by E. Weissert and a new edition of Shephela 1 (Fragment of Stone Lamashtu Plaque) being prepared by Jacqueline Vayntrub.

Although less significant, a few bibliographic and typographic errors are notable. On pg. 139n17, the editors refer to M. S. Smith 2010: 55-56, n. 83. The only reference in the bibliography, though, is to Mark Smith’s 2008 volume God in Translation: Deities in Cross-Cultural Discourse in the Biblical World. Second, reference to a personal blog post by Christopher Rollston minuses the space between two words: “Reflections on the FragmentaryCuneiform Tablet from the Ophel.” Finally, the reference to pg. 14 for further discussion (pg. 86) is written in an obscure font.

These minor issues aside, the 2nd edition of Cuneiform in Canaan offers readers a couple handfuls of new bibliographical information, six new cuneiform texts from Canaan, and an updated discussion of the alphabet in the 2nd millennium BCE. Of course, with the updated bibliography, many aspects of the volume are undoubtedly more nuanced than the 1st edition. These are the elements which stood out to me.

Now, whereas I typically recommend books for libraries, Cuneiform in Canaan: The Next Generation, is essential for any Bible scholar, Assyriologist studying cuneiform in the west, or historian specializing of Syria-Palestinian history. The discussion and bibliography are indispensable, offering a starting point for a wide variety of topics and issues. I highly recommend this volume for university libraries and personal libraries.

[1] See Ahmad Al-Jallad and Ali Al-Manaser, “A Thamudic B Abecedary in the South Semitic Letter Order,” in Semitic Languages in Contact, ed. A. Butts (Leiden: Brill, 2015), 1-15.

*I’d like to express my gratitude to Eisenbrauns for providing a review-copy in exchange for my honest opinion.


“Translation as Scholarship: Language, Writing, and Bilingual Education in Ancient Babylonia” by C. Jay Crisostomo

C. Jay Crisostomo. Translation as Scholarship: Language, Writing, and Bilingual Education in Ancient Babylonia. SANER 22. Berlin: De Gruyter, 2019.

Initially, I will first provide a summary. This will be followed by discussion of his conclusions and arguments.


In Translation and Scholarship, Crisostomo argues that ancient “translation” practices of cuneiform scholars fail to meet “our modern expectation and presuppositions regarding what constitutes translation” (3). As such, he places translation under the broader umbrella of analogy, for all translation is, at base, analogical. Particularly fundamental to the problem of defining translation is the problem of meaning. Noting that the relationship between meaning and translation is problematic in translation studies, he raises another question central to his study: concerning translation, “should meaning be restricted to semantics” (6)?9781501509810

From here, he notes that language is a social practice. As such, translation must be understood within the culture and norms of the particular language, region, and time period. That is, the social world serves as a framework for understanding and defining “translation.” Drawing from the Bourdieusian notion of habitus, Crisostomo explores the habitus, that is the practices and activities, which frame and define the ancient notion of “translation.”

So, the study deals with that very question: how does habitus of ancient cuneiform scholars during their scribal education shape their notion of translation? Rather than simply focusing on “translation,” Crisostomo argues that “Sumerian-Akkadian bilingualism and the mode of interpretation [he terms] analogical hermeneutics are exemplified in Izi. In fact, in Izi, bilingualism – translation – is analogical hermeneutics” (10). Drawing on the work of his predecessors, he illustrates how Izi, one of six lexical compositions employed for advanced lexical education in Nippur during the OB period, served to “inculcate analogical hermeneutics as scribal habit” (10). As such, ancient cuneiform scholars who could work well with analogical hermeneutics could attain more social capital within their particular social contexts.

So, he argues, scribes practicing analogical hermeneutics are agents of translation within their social field. “In other words, they act as scholars, scholars who translate. Thus, translation is scholarship” (14).

Chapter 2 further details his broad argumentation laid out in Chapter 1. The foundations of cuneiform translation are found in three places: cuneiform’s semiotic structure; multilingualism in cuneiform culture; and the institution of OB scribal schools. Together, these allow better analysis of how translation developed in scholarly communities. First, concerning cuneiform’s semiotic structure, he introduces the language and concepts. To describe cuneiform, Crisostomo draws from W. Hanks: sign vehicle (the cuneiform sign itself), designatum (type of object which the sign vehicle may refer to, with all possibilities), and denotatum (“specific, contextualized referent of the sign” (20)). Particularly with Akkadian and Sumerian, relation between these three aspects of semiotics is rooted in social convention.

Second, Crisostomo demonstrates the nature of multilingualism from the later 3rd millennium up to the OB period. The blending of Sumerian and Akkadian early on still remains a point of contention among scholars. Early in the 2nd millennium BCE, the relationship between script and language remained problematic. With the emergence of new cultural elites defined by their ability to read and write in the OB period, scribes underwent training and valorized an invented form of Sumerian culture. So, language and script were “an essential characterization of the field of education, a social differentiation largely grounded in the memory produced within the field itself” (35). Through this memory produced within the social group, Sumerian became the “foremost over all the language of Mesopotamia” (38).

Third, through scribal education and copying lexical lists, scribes could be inculcated with cultural knowledge about the invented Sumerian culture, not solely linguistic expertise. As such, analogous reasoning within lexical lists characterizes the “scribal play” found in lexical lists, and cuneiform scholarship more broadly, as normative means of knowledge production, proof of scribal competence, and social capital.

Chapter 3 outlines the expressions of analogical hermeneutics in advanced lexical education. Within this system, “translation analogically describes semiotic relations between words and signs” (51). As such, “Translation is an outcome of the broader scholarly activity of analogical hermeneutics” (51). He proceeds by describing (a) what analogical hermeneutics are, (b) analogical hermeneutics in cuneiform culture, (c) analogical hermeneutics as a form of OB scribal education habitus, (d) and the particular analogical structure of Izi.

First, briefly discussing analogical hermeneutics, his findings resonate with E. Frahm; however, whereas Frahm views hermeneutics as aiming for correct interpretation, Crisostomo replaces “correct interpretation” with “all potential interpretations” (52). With this, he defines analogical hermeneutics as “a mode of scholarly interpretation by which a scribe perceives, generates, or imposes through analogical reasoning associations between two or more epistemic objects” (52), echoing the voices of scholars like G.E.R. Lloyd and F. Rochberg. He continues, noting that cultures throughout time and space have employed analogical reasoning. As a form a rhetoric in history, cuneiform likewise utilizes analogy. Moreover, analogy for cuneiform scholars was tied to social identity as it demanded knowledge of the writing system and languages.

Second, Crisostomo explores how analogical hermeneutics are present from the early lexicography through to the first millennium BCE. Through a wide range of text genres, including ED lists, 1st millennium commentaries, omen lists, epics, and more general OB texts, he shows the continuity of analogical hermeneutics. What distinguishes the OB period from other periods, though, “is the systematic habituation of the technique, particularly in scribal education” (68).

Third, outlining the OB scribal habitus, he shows how analogical hermeneutics plays a role in each text employed as part of the advanced lexical education. He briefly looks at examples from Izi, Ea, Diri, Lu, Kagal, Nigga, Lu-azlag, Ugumu, the Nippur God Lists, the Nippur Legal Phrasebook, and Mathematical lists and tables. Each of these texts, Crisostomo contends, reflect the habitus of the OB scribal curriculum. The habitus, in turn, was reproduced through scribal practice and provided social actors with social capital via inculcation of analogical hermeneutics.

Fourth, and central to the entire volume, Crisostomo reviews all of Izi, picking up on Civil’s work at entry 158. Likewise, he offers a few revisions of Civil’s descriptions. His description of analogical hermeneutics within Izi, both in terms of the macrostructure and microstructure, convincingly illustrate that analogical hermeneutics were embedded as practice in the habitus of OB scribal education.

Chapter 4 focuses on how the technique of analogical hermeneutics plays out multilingually, namely how scribes practiced interlingual analogical hermeneutics. First, he provides an overview of interlingual analogical hermeneutics diachronically, drawing from various commentaries, bilingual texts, NA texts, OB texts, and lexical texts. These demonstrate how “a systematically embedded scholarly practice during the Old Babylonian period… likely persisted to the end of cuneiform culture” (124).

Second, he shifts to focusing on multilingualism in Izi from OB Nippur in context of advanced lexical education. Within this, he looks at bilingual texts and unilingual texts with Akkadian glosses. Akkadian glosses in unilingual texts employ analogical strategies, as do bilingual texts; however, bilingual texts are pedagogically oriented towards interlingual analogies with semantic correlation. Therefore “Whereas the bilingual version [of Izi] seeks to preserve semantic congruity between the two languages, the unilingual version [of Izi] supports practices in interlingual associations reflecting the goals of analogical hermeneutics as a whole” (140).

Third, returning to how interlingual analogical hermeneutics is rooted in cuneiform script, he further shows how Sumerian was restricted to the habitus of OB scribal schools. As such, OB scribal habitus at Nippur marked a major shift: “scholarship need not be indexed by whether one writes in Akkadian or in Sumerian… A true Babylonian scribe could operate fluidly in the interlingual space. We are thus privy to the beginnings of a new conception of scholarship marked by analogical hermeneutics” (152). Moreover, it is important to note that, though Crisostomo agrees with Van De Mieroop (2015) concerning how the writing system was exploited for scholarship, Crisostomo pushes against Van De Mieroop’s claim by arguing that “writing and reality need not be connected in any way; writing and the analogically based interpretation of writing is scribal habit, conventionalized and routinized within and applicable for position taking in the field of scribal education” (144).

Fourth, since Crisostomo established that translation (i.e. bilingualism) in advanced lexical education reflects analogical hermeneutics, he describes the various techniques of analogical hermeneutics. The typologies of Sumerian-Akkadian correspondences are as follows: semantic commensuration, semantic extension, qualified or abbreviated, phonological substitution, morphological substitution, transferred meaning, grammatical derivation, loanwords, graphic extension, iconic representation, antonymic translation, spatial/traditional references, and opaque analogies (153).

Chapter 5 synthesizes his discussions, focusing on the “implications for language and translation raised by the application of analogical hermeneutics” (167). So, restating previous arguments, the polysemy and polyvalency of cuneiform is systemized in OB education through advanced lexical education. On this basis, analogy is scholarship. Notably, he comments that other have suggested that cuneiform scholarship, such as J. J. Glassner; however, Crisostomo contends that the foundations for Glassner’s claims are weak (171n8).

Pushing against tendency within recent Assyriological literature to assume a “Platonic association of name and essence” (177), he argues that scholars misconstrue scribal practice, as they assume the hermeneutic practices were a search for singular truth. By contrast, Assyrian and Babylonian hermeneutics recognize the diversity of meaning through cuneiform. So, “The practice of analogical hermeneutics in Mesopotamia is not due to mentality that conceived word and sign as inherent or natural to a thing but to a social convention within the field of scholarship that appreciates the possibilities granted by the writing system” (179).

Additionally, Crisostomo argues that “translation should be reevaluated as a semiotic process for attaining partial equivalence under multiple possible perspectives” (180). Put another way, Crisostomo views the Western understanding of “translation” as too limited, contending that cuneiform scholars understood at least three concepts of translation. As such, scholarly translations are limited by scribal conventions. So, through employing these scribal conventions, scribes “asserted their social role in the culture” (184).

Finally, Crisostomo offers a brief summary of his entire volume. Through inculcation of scribes via the advanced lexical education in OB Nippur, a habitus was established which enabled scribes to reproduce cultural capital and attain cultural capital through control of the writing system. The analogical hermeneutics which were engrained through the advanced lexical education permitted scholars to demonstrate their knowledge and expand cuneiform knowledge via the interlingual space between Sumerian and Akkadian, mediated by the writing system. As such, it entextualized “transmutable knowledge that could carry the field to the end of cuneiform culture” (185), that is analogical hermeneutics.

Chapter 6 is an edition of the OB word list Izi from Nippur. Appendix 1 provides a catalogue of other versions of Izi, based on region and time period. Appendix 2 lists the Akkadian glosses from Izi at Nippur which indicate the use of either semantic commensurability or another analogical hermeneutical technique, showing that of 465 viable entries, 37% indicate other analogical techniques and 63% show semantically commensurable glosses.


Many aspects of Crisostomo’s analyses are commendable. First, his incorporation of habitus is one of the stronger points of his work, demonstrating how Izi served to inculcate scribes as part of broader social activities. It is one of the constant threads throughout the volume. As such, he effectively demonstrates how the OB scribal habitus served to inculcate analogical hermeneutics into students. Second, his discussion of analogical hermeneutics as a pedagogical aspect of OB scribal education is erudite and insightful. Perhaps future studies will begin to trace how analogical hermeneutics, and their associated habitus, changed through time and space after the OB period in Nippur. Third, the theoretical discussion of analogical hermeneutics, translation, habitus, etc., along with his ability to merge them into a coherent argument, is notable. Though not without problems, Crisostomo’s discussion is undoubtedly essential to address for any Assyriologists dealing with issues related to translation.

That said, there are a few caveats to these commendable aspects of his work. First, it is unclear how he defines the relationship between translation and analogical hermeneutics. Early on, he claims that “translation is scholarship.” Because translation is a type of analogical hermeneutic, though, analogical hermeneutics are not necessarily always a type of translation. Instead, “Translation is an outcome of the broader scholarly activity of analogical hermeneutics” (51). Later on, he comments that “The knowledge that OB ALE scribes conveyed concerned hermeneutics more than translation” (165). That is, analogical hermeneutics was conveyed more often than translation in the sense of semantic commensurability alone.

And yet, Chapter 5 suggests that “translation should be reevaluated as a semiotic process for attaining partial equivalence under multiple possible perspectives,” thereby creating space for cuneiform scholarship and their “translation” (180). What I mean to point out through these various quotations is the lack of clarity concerning the relationship between translation and analogical hermeneutics. He suggests:

(a)    That translation is analogical hermeneutics, and therefore translation is scholarship. As such, we should change our understanding of what “translation” means. So, Babylonian scholars “crafted a version of translation reflecting these analogical habits rather than solely semantic alignment” (113). If it is a “version” of translation, does it really constitute translation anymore? Can we justify calling it “translation” if the goal of the translation is not communicative?

(b)    That translation is just an aspect of analogical hermeneutics. As such, analogical hermeneutics sometimes overlap with translation, particularly in terms of semantic commensurability. If so, how do we define the relationship between analogical hermeneutics and translation?

(c)     That analogical hermeneutics are conveyed more frequently than translation, indicating a distinction between analogical hermeneutics and translation. So, does this mean that Babylonian scholars used both translation and analogical hermeneutics?

Thus, although he provides helpful and solid theoretical discussion concerning language, translation, and analogical hermeneutics, he should have spent more time discussing and clarifying the relationship between analogical hermeneutics and translation. From my perspective, perhaps it is better to abandon the idea that scholarship is translation; perhaps scholarship is simply analogical hermeneutics, which has a different goal than translation and can still overlap with translation through semantic commensurability.

Additionally, while discussing the issue of multilingualism, he comments on the problem of “code switching.” While some texts clearly demark units where the code is being switched, some texts from the SI.A-a archive blend Akkadian and Sumerian. This is also present in other archives. To what degree, though, is what we perceive as linguistic admixture (a) to be understood as two distinct languages or (b) to be understood as a single, linguistic system, even if just a linguistic system designed for writing? Dealing with this issue is central because it impacts the degree to which the relationship between Akkadian and Sumerian were perceived as distinct languages and sign systems. Thus, it also impacts what we mean by words like “translation.” For if language divisions were not as sharp in the later 3rd millennium as they are now, especially for the scribal community, it is questionable whether or not the scribes perceived their actions as related to “translation” in any way.

Furthermore, regarding one example of advanced lexical education, he fails to offer any explanation of how it shows analogical hermeneutics. Concerning mathematical lists and tables, he comments: “As such, it is difficult to posit how they fit into the proposed emphasis on analogical reasoning, if they even do. Perhaps the introduction of a new subject in association with writing demands a degree of analogy” (92). In other words, he unsure how mathematical lists fit into the system. Unfortunately, he never attempts to deal with this problem any further. While this doesn’t discount his proposed analogical hermeneutical focus for advanced lexical education, it does indicate that there is still a hole in his argument.

Finally, his categories of analogical hermeneutic techniques are particularly helpful. My primary critique is that he fails to catalogue which techniques were applied the most within Izi. In other words, all the techniques are analogical hermeneutics. How often, though is grammatical derivation used as opposed to semantic extension? In Appendix 2, he lays out the percentage of Akkadian-Sumerian glosses with semantic commensurability as opposed to another analogical hermeneutic technique. He bundles all other techniques, though, into a single category. By detailing the number of times that each analogical hermeneutic technique is used within Izi, we would have an even better understanding of the role that analogical hermeneutics plays in OB scribal habitus at Nippur.

In conclusion, Crisostomo’s Translation as Scholarship is an excellent volume. Particularly as it regards the historical development of scribalism during the OB period and the textualization of analogical hermeneutics in scribal education as a foundation of cuneiform scholarship for nearly 2 millennia, the volume is erudite, informative, and well-argued. Likewise, the volume is useful for more methodologically and theoretically oriented issues. Unfortunately, aspects of the theory and methodology were unclear, especially the relationship between language, translation, and analogical hermeneutics. Hopefully, future scholars, or perhaps Crisostomo himself, will help by clarifying the relationship.

Nonetheless, any Assyriologist dealing with issues of scribal education, translation theory, or lexical lists should consult Translation as Scholarship. Scholars dealings with Aramaic-Akkadian bilingual inscriptions, along with trilingual inscriptions, should also consult this volume. It establishes a foundation for OB scribal habitus at Nippur and its subsequent reception over two millennia. Perhaps future scholars will continue in Crisostomo’s path, exploring how analogical hermeneutics changed over two millennia of Babylonian and Assyrian scholarship.

*I’d like to express my gratitude to De Gruyter for providing a review-copy in exchange for my honest opinion. 


Review of “The Early Mediterranean World, 1200-600 BC” edited by Anne-Maria Wittke

BNP.jpgBrill’s New Pauly: The Early Mediterranean World, 1200-600 BC was originally published by J.B. Metzler Verlag as Der Neue Pauly Supplemente 10: Frühgeschichte der Mittelmeerkulturen in 2015. This volume is the translation of the original 2015 volume. Focusing on the cultural epoch of the ‘early Mediterranean world,’ about 70 scholars contributed to the volume. It covers a wide range of issues: broad theoretical and methodological problems, the history of various regions throughout the entire Mediterranean, and, most importantly, various aspects of cultural contact (i.e. trade and economy, ancient warfare, religion, etc.). The prospect alone of editing and putting together a volume involving such a wide variety of specialists throughout the Mediterranean is, of course a Herculean task. Yet, Anne-Maria Wittke was able to accomplish the task. So, in what follows, I will offer a broad summary of Brill’s New Pauly: The Early Mediterranean World, 1200-600 BCE (henceforth BNP 9). Following the summary, I will highlight some particularly valuable aspects of BNP 9, along with some (potentially) problematic aspects.

The volume is divided into three major sections. The first section is titled “The Mediterranean region, ca. 1200-600 BC.” This covers a wide range of important methodological issues concerning perspectives on the ancient Mediterranean region. To approach the region, the volume is framed with the cultural studies notion of landscape: “Landscapes are created by people – through their experience and engagement with the world around them. They may be close-grained, worked upon, lived0in places, or they may be distant and half-fantasised” (21). By employing this perspective, it becomes more evident that “objective” description of landscapes often involves “a minefield of clichés, colonial preconceptions and racist imputations,” things which should be held in check and require constant self-critical awareness when studying ancient Mediterranean history (22). As such, the impression of the Mediterranean as a whole entity is, at base, a modern construct. This is best highlighted through considering the diversity of relationship between people and the sea, the climate, geological resources, and hinterlands. And, so, one should speak of landscapes rather than a single, ancient Mediterranean landscape.

Having addressed landscapes, the problem of chronology is subsequently addressed. First, the problem of chronology as a construct is addressed: “it is necessary to work with notional dates, that is, dates that are the ‘results’ of chronological constructions or else based on hypothetical synchronisms” (26). Such constructs are usually based on archaeology, and sometimes texts, involving phase divisions, value judgements, and periodization. Moreover, the problems of relative vs. absolute chronology are addressed, along with the importance of dendrochronology and 14C dating and their particular limitations in context of the Mediterranean and early historical period. Second, the volume considers ancient models of time. It focuses are three aspects: the cyclical chronological model, time and action (i.e. calendars, inscriptions, and administrative records), and time and monuments (i.e. monuments which offer “a visible and tangible marker of space and time” (33), an expression of permanence).

Next, the problem of culture and culture contact is addressed. Though referencing the normative, evolutionist views developed by Johann Gottfried Herder, the volume takes the stance of Edward Tylor: “culture is a construct by means of which present and historic conditions are tentatively ordered and related to one another, both by members ‘of a culture’ and by external analysts” (36). Later scholars who clarified this notion are briefly discussed. Moreover, the material, cultural value of things and cultural subjects is addressed. Having defined culture, things, and cultural subjects from a theoretical standpoint, the subsequent discussion briefly engages with the problem of cultural contact. Pushing against the essentialist view of culture, which tends to assert cultural hierarchy, the volume prefers a more heterarchic relationship between cultures, wherein the cultures are analyzed as recipients, free and rational actors who “decide whether to accept cultural products and how they are incorporated into their lives” (38). This sort of approach is called ‘glocal,’ which denotes “the intermeshing of local conditions and external influences acting on them and the processes involved,” an approach which “must be put in its historical context so that its unique character may be recognized” (39).

Most central and problematic for understanding landscapes, constructed chronology, and describing culture and cultural contact, though, is sources. So, the first section concludes with a discussion of the various sources available to scholars throughout the Mediterranean. This is addressed in terms of (a) literary sources (including oral sources) and (b) material sources and archaeology. These overviews, particularly that of literary sources, is a splendid introduction to those who are seeking a basic understanding of how and why scholars know what they know about history. This portion is concluded with a helpful overview of the history of scholarship as it relates to the relationship between Mediterranean history and archaeology, the concept of objectivity, and research and discoveries from the 19th and 20th centuries (i.e. methodologically, textual transmission, excavations, and particular cultural zones).

The second major section, entitled “Regions of the Mediterranean world,” provides an overview of 8 areas: the Iberian Peninsula and islands; Southern France and Central Europe; Italy, including Sicily, Corsica, and Sardinia; Continental Southern Europe; Greece, including Crete and other Greek territories; Asia Minor; the Levant, northern Arabia, northern Egypt, and Cyprus; and North African territories from Cyrenaica western, along with other Phoenician and western Phoenician territories. Description of these regions constitutes the bulk of the volume (pp. 65-391).

The third and final major section is entitled “Aspects of cultural contact.” Generally, each subsection in the final section describes a particular aspect of cultural contact between societies of the ancient Mediterranean. These discussions synthesize the data presented throughout the second major section by focusing on a range of issues: settlement and mobility; society and authority; religion in the Central, Eastern, and Western Mediterranean, along with a thorough discussion of religion as it concerns sacral spaces and cultural contacts; war and warfare; economy and raw materials; history of law in the Eastern Mediterranean world; and cultural technologies and knowledge, which includes discussion of language and scripts, and various forms of early science in the ancient Near East, Egypt, and Greece. Notably, each section deals with theoretical and methodological issues related to the subject matter.

The appendix contains three helpful charts. These charts describe the various chronological systems of the Mediterranean world from 1200-600. Additionally, the end of the volume includes 11 detailed regional maps. These maps are particular helpful because they include the general cultural regions (i.e. Catalan Urnfield Culture, Latial culture, Southeast Hallstatt Zone, etc.). Moreover, a few helpful references maps are included throughout the volume: deposits zones and major centres of primary metal extraction from 1200-600 BCE; Mediterranean settlements and trading contacts with probably sea routes, land routes, caravan routes, and contact zones; a map of Mediterranean landscapes; and a map of currents, wind patterns, and sights of land in the Mediterranean.  Finally, the volume includes a helpful chart of languages, describing the language/branch/dialect, script, evidence, periods of attestation, and region(s).

Overall, BNP 9 is arguably one of the more important publications of 2018. Its enormous breadth of methodological, theoretical, archaeological, and historical presentations with regard to regions throughout the ancient Mediterranean is unparalleled. In particular, BNP 9 should be addressed for any scholars specializing in the history of a micro-region around the Mediterranean. I recommend this for a few reasons. First, each entry in BNP 9 in particularly sensitive to the problem of theory and method. As such, BNP 9 provides superb discussion of theory-method issues as well as a superb bibliography for each section. For instance, scholars of religion interested in the role of sacral spaces can either (a) draw from the basic conclusions presented by Beat Schweizer or (b) identify various bibliographic references fundamental to the study of sacral spaces in order to further develop her or his own definition or understanding of sacral spaces for their particular region. In other words, BNP 9 is thorough enough to use for identifying and defining key methodological-theoretical terms; however, it is also a compendium of up-to-date, bibliographic information which can be used to further research.

Second, in an academic world where interdisciplinary dialogue is becoming more important, BNP 9 provides a path for scholars to expand from their own micro-regions to the broader networks of the ancient Mediterranean, or to at least be more attuned to the broader networks of the ancient Mediterranean.

Third, the wide variety of entries concerning methodology, theory, particular regions, and synthesis of ancient Mediterranean networks are helpful introductions to the material. They would be most helpful for upper-level undergraduate courses or graduate courses. One section in particular stood out to me. In 3.1C, Beat Schweizer and Frerich Schön discuss aspects of cultural contact as they relate to the settlement and mobility of Phoenicians. It illustrates the history of scholarship concerning the Westward expansion of Phoenician colonies, clearly outlining the problems related to categorizing the settlements as “colonization,” the history of ideas surrounding the cause of Westward expansion, the current state of scholarship, and the problem of distinguishing between “colonists” and the “indigenous groups.” Moreover, it is a helpful demonstration not just of the historical content and history of scholarship, but also of how method and theory significantly impact the ways in which historians reconstruct history. As such, the entries in the volume have the potential to be introductory material for students which is exemplary and pedagogically valuable.

My criticisms of BNP 9 are few and far between. First, some experts in their field will undoubtedly find certain analyses, claims, and presentations problematic. As concerns my field, there was nothing which I found to be particularly problematic. Second, while the maps are extremely detailed and helpful, it can sometimes be extremely difficult to identify cities on maps. This is especially true with the map of Italy.

In conclusion, BNP 9 is a superb volume. With its detailed coverage of the entire ancient Mediterranean, attentiveness to methodological and theoretical concerns, and syntheses of ancient Mediterranean networks from various perspectives, BNP 9 is indispensable for scholars researching any regions addressed in this volume. Moreover, many of the articles in BNP 9 would be helpful introductory material for advanced courses. In short, though many individuals may not purchase this volume, any research university should have this volume on their shelves or online.


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Review: “The Anti-Witchcraft Ritual Maqlû: The Cuneiform Sources of a Magic Ceremony from Ancient Mesopotamia” by Daniel Schwemer

Schwemer2017Tzvi Abusch and Daniel Schwemer are two of the most prolific writers with regard to Maqlû¸ the well-known Mesopotamian anti-witchcraft ritual. Already in 2016, Tzvi Abusch published the long-awaited critical edition of Maqlû, a remarkable editorial achievement [1]. This volume, then, serves as a supplement to the critical edition of Maqlû. Instead of focusing on translations and transliterations like Abusch’s critical edition, this volume focuses on the epigraphy and history of transmission of Maqlû.

Chapter One introduces Maqlû. First, he briefly describes the matter of witches, withcraft, and anti-witchcraft rituals in the ancient Near East, a particularly succinct summary which provides (a) scholarship history and (b) a summary of Maqlû. Subsequently, he describes the role which the Maqlû-ceremony played culturally, describing the prestige of Maqlû in Mesopotamian tradition and how it was incorporated into other rituals and texts. Shifting to textual transmission and dates, he suggests that the exact composition date is unknown; however, on the basis of linguistic forms, development of Babylonian literature, and extant MSS, it was likely composed between the 13th and 11th centuries BCE, with a fixed length of eight tablets, followed by the Ritual Tablet. Even so, evidence from rituals like Bīt Rimki and SpTU 4, 128 point towards “the plurality of maqlû rites used in the ritual practice of āšipūtu” (4). At last, Schwemer provides a thorough synopsis of the maqlû-ceremony.

Whereas Chapter One provides an overview, Chapter Two discusses the MSS of Maqlû. This discussion of MSS also includes, of course, a helpful discussion of the history of scholarship. Figures in this include Fracois Lenormant (1875), George Smith (1875), Theophilus G. Pinches (1891), James A. Craig (1895), and, most importantly Knut Tallqvist (1890s). It was Tallqvist who first reconstructed tablets I and II, some of Tablet III-VII, and a “Tablet VIII,” which he had not yet identified as the Ritual Tablet. After exploration of the Kuyunjik Collection and subsequent work, Meier identified that the maqlû-series was composed of 8 incantation tablets and one ritual tablet. Meier’s work, Schwemer comments, “reflects, on the whole, an understanding of the Akkadian text that is still valid today” (24).

Of those fragments discovered at Nineveh, only 46/221 were known by Meier. Wilfred Lambert and Rykle Borger, though, helped to identify many of these fragments. The fragments were eventually joined together and ordered in Abusch’s critical edition. Subsequently, Schwemer describes the various locations from which other fragments were recovered, such as at Sultantepe, Uruk, Kish, and Nimrud. Other fragments, such as two NB MSS from Nippur, were identified; however, they remain unstudied. Finally, he lays out the distribution of canonical MSS, based on tablet.

Next, he considers source typology, for which he distinguishes between the Maqlû-text and parallel sources. Parallel sources “include text portions or passage that are identical or similar to passages in Maqlû. Those portions, however, are not presented as part of Maqlû, but are embedded in a different literary and ritual context” (26). As for sources who wrote Maqlû proper, he divided these into two categories: full-text tablets and excerpt tablets. The latter includes school texts and commentaries, for which we have 17 school tablets, two commentaries, and a LB explanatory text, demonstrating an understanding of Maqlû as “authoritative textual tradition that could be used as a witness in theological arguments” (27). The former, namely full-text tablets, include the vast majority of MSS. On the basis of the spread of these tablets, Schwemer suggests that they were not complete sets; rather, they were “individual assignments by advanced students of cuneiform” (28). Finally, he provides a chart organizing the MSS by Tablet, Siglum, Museum number and bibliography, Provenance, and Plate number.

Chapter Three attempts to group the various fragments on the basis of palaeography, tablet formatting, physical properties, colophon, and findspot/museum collection context. These categories enable to him to propose 5 plausible full-sets of Maqlû from Kuyunjik. He then proposes some smaller text groups for MSS from Ashur, Sultantepe, Nimrud, and those of unknown provenance, or in some cases no group. He does the same with MSS from Babylonian libraries at Babylon and Borsippa, Sippar, Kish, Nippur, Ur, and Uruk.

Chapter Four describes the variants and versions of Maqlû. In doing so, he distinguishes between the multiple levels of variation: section level, line level, word level, and morphological variation. For variations at each of these levels, he further distinguishes between legitimate variants, inferior variants, and scribal errors. Moreover, on the basis of the “comparatively homogeneous group of manuscripts with a low incidence of scribal errors,” Schwemer views the Kuyunjik Maqlû sources as the textual standard. In laying out the information as such, he effectively demonstrates the variation in Maqlû MSS through time and space. Perhaps more importantly, his analysis uncovers important morpho-syntactic patterns and peculiarities from Maqlû MSS, patterns which may help to make sense of morpho-syntax in other Assyrian and Babylonian texts.  

Chapter Five, forms a brief supplement to the critical edition by Abusch. Schwemer offers readings of cuneiform signs different from those of Abusch on the basis of hand copies in this volume. This is followed by hand copies of 126 Maqlû MSS.

Overall, Schwemer’s presentation of Maqlû MSS and variation within them is extremely valuable. His organizing MSS into tablet groups and subsequent tracking of variants between Maqlû MSS offers a helpful reconstruction of how texts were received and copy in Mesopotamia. Furthermore, his analysis of the variants by group has much potential for strengthening our understanding of various Akkadian dialects. For example, he notes that “The attestations for the nominative in -a­ found in the Maqlû manuscripts would suggest that scribes were prone to use them in intransitive clauses or in semantic contexts with low transitivity, but future studies based on a more comprehensive dataset of pre-Late Babylonian manuscripts of Standard Babylonians texts may invalidate this observation” (70). In other words, the spelling conventions and linguistics variations may be helpful data in elucidating how Akkadian developed in space and time.

I only noted a single typo on pg. 66. In the left column, the paragraph beginning with “The addition of ina before ŠU.[SI in RT 66′” does not include a final ] bracket after SI.



[1] Tzvi Abush, The Magical Ceremony Maqlû. A Critical Edition (Leiden-Boston: Brill, 2016).

Review of “The Exegetical Terminology of Akkadian Commentaries” by Uri Gabbay

Uri Gabbay. The Exegetical Terminology of Akkadian Commentaries. In Culture and History of the Ancient Near East, Vol. 82. Leiden: Brill, 2016.

Uri Gabbay is a Senior Lecturer in Department of Archaeology/Ancient Near East and School of Philosophy and Religions at Hebrew University. Since 2009, much of his work has been in the area of Akkadian commentaries. This volume, though, is the first attempt to write a comprehensive description of the terminology used in Akkadian commentaries and how they function.

Like any volume, the Introduction offers a brief introduction to what Mesopotamian commentaries are and how to approach them, for which he suggests three steps: identify the base text (i.e. subject of the commentary), identify motivations behind comments (i.e. textual difficulties), and identify the technical terminology. Gabbay focuses on the third step, which enables one to better understand the hermeneutical process of Akkadian commentators. Subsequently, he offers a brief discussion of important terms: canonical (i.e. attributed to divine authority), hermeneutical technique versus hermeneutical motivation (i.e. methods employed versus solving problems in the base text), and exegetical terminology (i.e. reasoning and exegetical terminology employed in the comment).

One of the greatest strengths of the Introduction is the framing of commentaries not as speculation or expansion; rather, commentaries “respond to a problem in the base text,” both minor lemma problems and more extensive context problems (9). In other words, although signs are polysemous, polysemy is primarily employed to make a text more coherent.

One point of possible contention, though, is Gabbay’s employment of the category “canon,” which he essentially defines as a text which has “an interpretive and study tradition” (4). While “canon” can be productive in some cases, particularly for later commentaries, it seems reasonable to assume that the status of a “canon” would have functioned with various nuances, depending on the period and region. To draw from Biblical Studies, the Hebrew Bible was technically a “Canon” in the 5th century BCE (compilation with subsequent expansion in the DSS and Second Temple Period literature), 2nd century BCE (list of the “official” books in Sirach), and 2nd century CE (Rabbinic period). In each period of the Hebrew Bible’s canonicity, though, “Canon” had very different valencies. By analogy, one would expect the “canonical” texts of Mesopotamia to have similar valencies throughout various periods (Neo-Assyrian, Late Babylonian, etc.). Therefore, “Canon” may be used to describe the base text of commentaries; however, nuances of particular periods must be considered. For focus on these nuances may impact how we interpret the exegetical terminology and comments without commentary texts.

Furthermore, Gabbay’s categorizations of “Canon,” terms like coherence, discussion of hermeneutics, etc., would have been strengthened by including matters of literary theory. By not considering the relationship between his claims and literary theory, a wide gap is left in his introductory material.

Chapter One examines exegetical terminology reflective of the Sitz im Leben. Such terminology, suggests Gabbay, points to a scribal context wherein oral lessons were written by students, to be later combined with written sources. Many exegetical terms employed in oral lessons and student responses reflect the Sitz im Leben as a learning environment lead by the teacher-scholar. The terminology itself is divided amongst four sections: Sitz im Leben of study process, learning environment (i.e. the lesson), 2nd person references, and Sitz im Leben of commentary compilation. Together, his description of terminology related to the Sitz im Leben is helpful for reconstructing a hypothetical learning environment.

Problematic is that Gabbay suggests a hypothetical learning environment on the basis of terminology alone. As he notes later, though, Babylonian, Late Babylonian, late Achemenid and early Hellenistic, and Neo-Assyrian exegetical terminology function similarly in various contexts, different densities of terminology are present in their respect periods and geographic regions (269-274). Therefore, Gabbay’s hypothetical learning environment is an oversimplified model. A nuanced model based on (a) terminology and (b) region/period would have been more precise and useful for future historical reconstructions.

Chapter Two presents exegetical terminology which addresses the meaning individual words and phrases via definition. Such definitions are either equations or descriptions. Gabbay asserts that equations are reflective of the lexical genre, whereas descriptions are reflective of lexical texts and the descriptive genre in texts like abnu šikinšu and šammu šikinšu. Overall, the presentation is helpful, especially for future studies on Akkadian commentaries and hermeneutical methods.

There is, though, one issue. Gabbay’s description of the Glossenkeil is over simplified. He claims in Chapter One that “textual variants are often indicated by Glossenkeil” (75). Then, in Chapter Two, he suggests two interpretations of the Glossenkeil: it separates two equated words or “corresponds to a verbal formula that was pronounced during lessons to indicate the relationship between the terms in a lexical equation” (85). Although convenient for his overall focus on exegetical terminology, the claim is problematic, inasmuch as it fails to provide any evidence or argument for his understanding of how a Glossenkeil functions within the texts. It may be preferable to interpret the Glossenkeil as a disjunctive marker. For, it can function syntactically in such a variety of manners that limiting the Glossenkeil to a single function is may be problematic. For example, he discusses a commentary on Sagig, wherein part of the text reads: “A = water, GUR = return; thirdly: (agurru, “baked brick,” refers to) a pregnant woman” (pp. 182-183;  [A : me-e] : GUR : ta-a-ra šal-šiš MUNUS.PEŠ4). In the commentary of Sagig, there is a Glossenkeil between A and , and GUR and târa. There is also a Glossenkeil between and GUR, though. While it may function to mark some sort of relationship between A: and GUR:târa, it is equally plausible that it simply functions as a disjunctive marker, distinguishing between the two lexical equivalences. This reading is preferable simply due to the ambiguity of Glossenkeilen. For, this reading takes into account the ambiguity of the Glossenkeil and forces one to carefully consider the function of it in its respective context.

Having described terminology which defines individual words and phrases, Chapter Three addresses terminology of contextualization terminology: “a process of discovering or constructing a context that will allow the interpreter to make sense of a lemma that is difficult to understand in isolation or in its immediate context, or to harmonize contradictory texts” (127). Such interpretation takes three forms: specification (clarification o the base text), changing the literal meaning of a lemma, and reasoning (“the process of identifying premises and drawing conclusions” (127)). Terminology employed, then, are primarily “prepositions and conjunctions that indicate the logical relationships between various signifiers” (128). Essentially, Gabbay categorizes the terminology which serves to makes sense of the base text by re-framing it.

As with Chapter Two, Gabbay’s cataloguing of exegetical terminology will be helpful for other studies. And considering the ambiguity of Akkadian commentary series, it would not be particularly surprising to find divergent interpretations of texts and how terminology functions within the texts. Even so, his arrangement is helpful nonetheless.

Although more of a cursory concern, there is an absence to any modern literary theory. Discussion this subject may be helpful in arranging the exegetical terminology and its uses. For example, while discussing the term libbū with textual citations, he references a Sagig commentary, wherein the commentator employs an omen from Šumma-ālu. In doing so, Gabbay suggests that the commentator reinterprets asirtu (concubine) in terms of esēru (to confine), inasmuch as the commentator claims asirtu actually refers the confining of a patient in his bed (p. 133). This method of interpretation is reflective of intertextuality. Closer attention to valencies of intertextuality (i.e. awareness of how a scholar cites material for interpretation) may have enabled Gabbay to analyze exegetical terminology in such a way that allowed one to more clearly see how various scribes themselves conceptualized authoritative texts and their relationship to them.

Chapter Four presents techniques and terminology which reflect awareness of “the nature and character of the text….  The action of interpretation itself and the commentator himself” (169). It is not entirely clear, though, how Gabbay decided what belonged to this category and what did not.

For example, he claims that the terminology kakku sakku (“sealed and shut”) in an explanatory text indicates a relationship between the comb/mirror of a goddess and the Corpse star. Said relationship is supposedly based on a “general ancient scholarly tradition” (179; 180n48). If this is the case, perhaps the terminology kakku sakku should fall under its own category. For, the relationship between elements A and B is suggested to be a general scholarly tradition. So, employing of kakku sakku is more of a reference to previous scholarly tradition than simply a comment on the nature or character of said text. If this is the case, Gabbay should work to expand his descriptive categories in the future, so that phrases like kakku sakku may be more adequately presented.

Chapter Five presents the variety of phrase with the verb qabû which function hermeneutically. Through this description, he suggests that the Mesopotamian worldview understood divine utterances to be present in the form of texts or “canon.” In a sense, this was the “divine word,” began commenting upon in the NA period.

Although the notion of a Mesopotamian “logos” is intriguing and may be a good course of research for future scholars, Gabbay’s treatment of the topic is not substantiated well. First, having focused primarily on qabû in Akkadian commentaries, briefly touching on its use outside of commentaries, any claim for a Mesopotamian “logos” must be substantiated by a systematic analysis of qabû in all Mesopotamian literature. Second, in attempting to paint a broad brushstroke of what constitutes a Mesopotamian “logos,” he does not distinguish between time period and region. As previously mentioned, further analysis in these regards would benefit all of his conclusions.

Finally, the Conclusion reflects on why his analyses matter. First, he suggests that the exegetical terminology points to a strong culture of scholasticism amongst scribes. Second, he carefully notes that, while exegetical terminology illustrate the hermeneutical process, the hermeneutical process may still occur within the exegetical terminology. Thus, Gabbay’s outline of exegetical terminology, and therefore the hermeneutical process, will be helpful for interpreting texts, especially commentaries, inasmuch we now have a better sense of a Mesopotamian hermeneutical framework. Finally, he briefly reflects on the spread of exegetical terminology. In doing so, he provides a summary of how Akkadian exegetical terminology may have developed.

Although intriguing, such analysis of the spread of exegetical terminology via geography, time period, and colophon should have played a bigger part in Gabbay’s analysis. For example, rather than dividing between the chapters as he did, it may have been more productive to categorize terminology by region and time period, subsequently considering the extent to which they informed each other or overlap.

Overall, The Exegetical Terminology of Akkadian Commentaries is a helpful volume for scholars, particularly those interested in Akkadian commentaries. And while he does offer thorough coverage of Akkadian exegetical terminology, this reviewer is left wondering if more substantive conclusions may have been achieved by arranging terminology on the basis of region, period, and attentiveness to intertextuality. Even so, there is no doubt that this will be a valuable volume for the future, especially as studies on Akkadian commentaries are on the rise. For, it also includes two concise and useful appendices on exegetical terminology in divinatory literature and early Hebrew literature.

*The publisher provided a review copy in exchange for my honest opinion.