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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

3 See Steiner (1992).

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

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

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

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

6 See Wearne (2017).

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

8 Robson (2019: 37).

9 Crisostomo (2019: 76–77).



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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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




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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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




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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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




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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Review: Kings of Israel (board game)

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

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

Game Play

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

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

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

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

The Good

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

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

The Confusing

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

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

The Concerning

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

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

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

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

Final Thoughts

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mesopotamian Commentaries

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

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

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

Authoritative Texts

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

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

General Notes

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

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


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



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

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.