Review: “Knowledge and Rhetoric in Medical Commentary: Ancient Mesopotamian Commentaries on a Handbook of Medical Diagnosis (Sa-gig)” by John Z. Wee

John Z. Wee. Knowledge and Rhetoric in Medical Commentary: Ancient Mesopotamian Commentaries on a Handbook of Medical Diagnosis (Sa-gig). Cuneiform Monographs 49/1. Leiden: Brill, 2019.

The first person to introduce me to Akkadian medical texts was, in fact, John Z. Wee during his course in the NELC department at the University of Chicago. At the time and still now, the intersection of scholasticism and commentaries on Sa-gig struck me as noteworthy because of the pesharim in the Dead Sea Scrolls, not to mention the role of commentaries in Jewish tradition more broadly. Moreover, I was familiar with some of the more recent work exploring the intersection of Assyriology and biblical studies, especially Bronson Brown-deVost’s Commentary and Authority in Mesopotamia and Qumran, with whom I had a delightful conversation at SBL/AAR 2019 regarding my review of his book. So, although my interest in Akkadian medical texts and their commentaries is not driven primarily by an interest in pure Assyriology, such ancient literature and modern scholarship are imperative for exploring historical concepts and the development of authoritative literature in the ancient world, especially how we can more precisely identify not just what textual groupings were authoritative but how they were authoritative: What literary mechanisms did scribes use to allude to other literature, and to what ends do they draw upon that literature? What did ancient Mesopotamian commentators assume about literature, both what they drew upon to establish ideas in commentaries and what they assumed about the texts about which they commented? How do certain textual compendia and serialized texts, as well as how scribes interacted with those things, tell us about the broader structure and ancient concepts in relation to those texts? In some way, John Wee’s volume addresses all these matters. In this review, then, I will briefly summarize his work and then engage with some specific discussions in the volume.

In chapter one (part I), Wee demonstrates that Mesopotamian commentaries are more than texts explaining obscure language and cuneiform. Instead, commentaries are situated, reflecting broader knowledge assumptions of authors and readers, often with idiosyncratic comments. So, while commentaries are a distinct Mesopotamian genre, they are diverse based on their situatedness and contexts. Chapter one (part II) continues by discussing Sa-gig and it’s serialization. Here he focuses on three aspects. First, Sa-gig means, more or less, “the bundling together of sickness” or “all sickness” (25). Second, Sa-gig is designed for magicians, or ashipu. Wee explains this via the origins of Sa-gig: since Esagil-kin-apli was a magician, the text bore authority for those in the ashipu profession. Third, the language in what we call “Esagil-kin-apli’s Manifesto” conveys an image of editorial activity via a metaphor of binding textual strands into a single composition. In part III, he continues with further consideration of Sa-gig’s nature as a serialized text. Considering manuscript variants, he identifies multiple types of variants. (Notably, he doesn’t attempt to prune these variants. Note that this comment is a joke, a reference to Loki.) In his words, “No matter what motivated editors to combine incongruous or even contradictory written descriptions, they gave no indication that later audiences were supposed to pick out the ‘correct’ variant, or that two embedded variants in the same manuscript were not to be considered as both legitimate. Whatever the textual history behind embedded variants, once they were transmitted and received as features of serialized texts, they all became integral to the logic and interpretation of the larger discourse” (51). In other words, variants were not for picking one over the other but rather were incorporated into the discourse’s logic. To conclude chapter one (part IV), Wee explores how and why commentaries use the A:B equation for “interchangeable alternatives in the syntax and context of their larger narrative.” In the serialization process, he suggests the scribal equation A:B was a standard equation for embedded variants. Commentators use this same interpretive framework, ensuring the A:B equation preserved “the perceived significance or original scenarios” (83).

In chapter two (part I), Wee examines various commentary designations. After analyzing each category, he offers a hierarchy: satu and mukallimtu are the main commentary designations. These categories are then qualitified by lower-level categories like shut pi or mash’altu. The final level was the scribal lesson (preserved as cuneiform commentary in a specific tablet). This category invoked ummanu-scholar authoritative teaching for single base text tablets. Moreover, he shows that the level below satu and makallimtu “describe the general approach, philosophy, and method applied to the study of the base text composition” (141). In part II, Wee explores from whence commentators drew from for textual authority and how they used such materials. Working through a broad range of examples, he distinguishes between two types of citation: lexical text citation and narratival intertextuality. Barring my issue with how scholars abuse the term “intertextual,” this distinction is quite productive. Whereas lexical text citations enabled commentators to “adduce logical relationships between lexical entries in close proximity, as if they comprise a single block of text,” narratival intertexuality allowed commentators to “disregard major themes, priorities, and even context of the larger discourse, focusing instead on a lone sentence or turn of phrase for the meaning of an individual word or expression” (183). Part III of chapter two shifts to more technical discussion of the forms of argumentation in Mesopotamian commentaries. Suffice it to say that Wee is remarkably thorough and detailed here, and some Assyriologists will undoubtedly take issue with some parts of this chapter.

Part IV of chapter two offers some final comments to tie the loose ends together. Considering how authority resided in a text, he suggests that the majority of commentaries were “primarily concerned with the meanings of individual expression and ideas, rather than with articulating or promoting selected methods of interpretation” (282). That is, few commentaries—save for the example he offers of the Esoteric Babylonian commentary that functions as an exemplar for certain methods of interpretation—use methodological exemplars. Rather, authority often depended on the “intentions and proclivities of the individual interpreter” (285) within a particular place and time, and so distinguishing between “authority conferred upon a text or technique and that which was inherent in them” is difficult.

Part I of chapter three shifts gears and discusses the macrostructure of Sa-gig itself. Most notably, he considers this structure in light of the therapeutic tradition, especially focusing on how Sa-gig I–III is framed through time, IV–V as the stage for therapy, and VI as focused on other bodies. Part II of chapter three identifies that selected textual elements “reveal knowledge assumptions by commentators concerning their audience” (356). Although that observation is not particularly surprising or revelatory, he nonetheless sheds light on the types of knowledge that would have been taken for granted or required further explanation. Part III briefly considers how folks used Sa-gig, based on the commentaries and their origins. First, Uruk commentaries are typically about Sa-gig II, which makes sense because Sa-gig I–III were “atypical in the medical curriculum so far” (421). By contrast, Sa-gig IV and V were not new threads—that is, they were typical knowledge—and so we have less commentaries. As such, Wee suggests that “the individual Sa-gig tablet came to be treated as a self-contained unit of text for purposes of reading and even instruction,” hence the entries were not approached as a kind of narrative. Wee concludes by contextualizing Mesopotamian scholasticism with the broader swathe of European universities in the Middle Ages and into the Renaissance, offering thoughts on how Sa-gig commentaries speaks to scholasticism.

Admittedly, things became busier than expected when I began this book (e.g., COVID-19, new jobs, health issues, etc.). As such, I was unable to interact with this volume as closely as I had hoped. Nonetheless, I offer some minor critiques here and continue by discussing a few routes that scholars outside of Assyriology and medical texts might be able to engage with and utilize Wee’s work.

First, though Wee even notes that “adequate treatment of the issue of canonization is beyond the scope of this volume” (37), his brief consideration does oversimplify the notion of “conferral of canonical status.” Indeed, canon is highly problematic within religious and biblical studies. As such, scholars have spent countless hours and pens processing, articulating, and defining the term canon, not to mention the work of literary theory scholars. As such, that Wee simplifies things to “a strict distinction between the formation of a text ‘series’ and the conferral of canonical status” strikes me a problematic. Although minor, he seems more to claim that he wants to understand Sa-gig and serialized variants as part of a series, not as the unstable category of canon. Unfortunately, his discussion reads as if the term canon is consistent and stable, when in fact it is unstable and highly problematic. Thus, folks interested in drawing from his work to think about notions of textual compendia in the ancient world will need to wrestle with his discussion and reconsider his comments on canon. Nonetheless, thinking about the Sa-gig and its commentaries is, I think, imperative for exploring notions of so-called canon in the ancient world more broadly.

Second, though I do not intend to critique so much as to draw attention to an interesting observation, when Wee discusses textual authority of sources, he articulates the different between lexical text citations and what he calls “narratival intertextuality.” Whereas commentators drew from lexical texts and entries as “blocks of text,” they often ignored the broader context—seemingly an interpretive choice—when drawing from narrative textual sources of authority (160–162). How scribes distinguished between lexical texts and narrative texts, as well as how they interacted with them in discrete ways, is imperative to thinking more broadly about the role of narrative and stories in the ancient world. In particular, I think to the popularity of innerbiblical exegesis and intertextuality in biblical studies. Indeed, we can identify when Text A incorporates Text B, but a more systematic analysis of how texts use other texts (i.e., the extent to which they disregard context) with regard to genre would be a fruitful way to thinking about ancient Judean interpretive and literary practices.

In short, John Wee’s Knowledge and Rhetorical in Medical Commentary in an erudite and refreshing analysis of Sa-gig and its commentaries. Although a highly specialized subject, some of his broader observations about serialization, canonization, textual sources of authority, and embedded variants may be helpful for folks in religious studies thinking about so-called canon, interpretive practices and textual sources of authority, and the boundaries in the ancient world of what we often designate science and literature.

Forthcoming (and Some Previous) Events, Articles, and Books*

I have been adding things to this list over the last month or two. As such, some events may have already happened and some articles may be old news at this point. Moreover, I include some articles and books not because they are new but because they are classics that I want to read. Enjoy!

Events

Everything from The BRANE Collective; follow them! (Link)

“Where Are the Books of Job’s Daughters? Mapping the Shadow of Libraries of Antiquity” by Eva Mroczek; in Zoomland, of course, on November 18, 7 p.m. to 8:15 p.m. (Link)

“The Story of Sacrifice: New Directions in the Study of the Priestly Source,” a panel discussion of Liane Feldman’s book called, well, The Story of Sacrifice: Ritual and Narrative in the Priestly Source; November 13, 10:30 a.m. to 12:00 p.m. (EST) (Link)

Misc Links and Articles

“The Book of Jonah and the Theme of Exile” by Marian Kelsey (Link)

“Ancient Muses and Student Poets: Storytelling in Verse” by Erin Galgay Walsh (Link)

“What are ᵓElilim?” by Mark Hamilton (Link)

Mark Hamilton explores the word ᵓĕlîlîm.

“The Conflict between Adonijah and Solomon in Light of Succession Practices Near and Far” by Andrew Knapp (Link)

“La Lingua Americana: Voice and Representation in Academic Publishing” by Ella Maria Diaz (Link)

“Rahab: Between Faith and Works” by Jacob Wright (Link)

Report of the Select Committee on Intelligence by the US Senate (Link)

Andrea Seri’s review of Ea’s Duplicity in the Gilgamesh Flood Story by Martin Worthington (Link)

“Discerning False Prophecy: The Story of Ahab and the Lying Spirit” by James A. Diamond (Link)

“Steve A. Wiggins (Oxford University Press): The Editors behind the Great Books in New Testament Studies” by Nijay Gupta (Link)

“Thinking Materially: Making Ostraca in the Classroom” by Patrick Angiolillo (Link)

“The Fascination, Challenges, and Joys of Being a Historian of Ancient Israelite Religion” by Theodore Lewis (Link)

Review of Inventing the Novel: Bakhtin and Petronius Face to Face by Robert Bracht Branham, written by Thomás Fernández (Link)

“Looters Destroy 2000-Year-Old Sudan Archaeological Side in Search for Gold” by The New Arab Staff and Agencies (Link)

“New Sept Volume on Leviticus: An Interview with Mark Awabdy” by William Ross (Link)

“No more office hours! We need student hours” by an individual on Twitter (Link)

An Educator’s Handbook for Teaching about the Ancient World (vol. 1), edited by Pınar Durgun (Link)

“Some Reflections on Ariel Sabar’s Veritas” by Tony Burke (Link)

Beit Mikra – Volume 65 (2020), No. 1 (Link)

“Aural Epistemology: Hearing and Listening in the Text of the Qur’an” by Lauren E. Osborne (Link)

“Feminist Historiography and Uses of the Past” by Blossom Stefaniw (Link)

Twitter Thread by Seth Sanders (Link)

“Epidemics in Mesopotamia” by Annie Attia (Link)

“Michel Foucault – The Dynamics of Power ” by James Bishop (Link)

“Mishnah, Midrash, and How to Read Tannaitic Literature” by Ishay Rosen-Zvi (Link)

“Introduction to the Masorah: The Masorah of the Leningrad Codex in the Biblia Hebraica Stuttgartensia (BHS) Edition” by Daniel Mynatt (Link)

“Imagining History without Heroes and Villains” by Russell P. Johnson (Link)

Vasileios Liotsakis’s review of Narratology: Classics in Theory by Genevieve Liveley (Link)

“The Idea and Study of Sacrifice in Ancient Israel” by Liana Feldman, an article oriented toward undergraduates, if I recall the Twitter post correctly (Link)

Metatron, a new journal from the group Renewed Philology (Link)

Books

The Synagogue in Ancient Palestine: Current Issues and Emerging Trends edited by Rick Bonnie et al.

The Amarna Letters: Transliterations, Translations, and Glossary of the International and Vassal Correspondence from Tell el-Amarna by Jacob Lauinger and Tyler Yoder (Link)

After the Harvest: Storage Practices and Food Processing in Bronze Age Mesopotamia edited by Noemi Borrelli and Guilia Scazzosi (Link)

Painting the Mediterranean Phoenician: On Canaanite-Phoenician Trade-nets by Dalit Regev (Link)

The Ancient South Arabian Royal Edicts from the Southern Gate of Timna and the Gabal Labah by Giovanni Mazzini (Link)

Building between the Two Rivers: An Introduction to the Building Archaeology of Ancient Mesopotamia by Stefano Anastasio and Piero Gilento (Link)

Identity in Persian Egypt: The Fate of the Yehudite Community of Elaphantine by Bob Becking (Link)

Reading Other Peoples’ Texts: Social Identity and the Reception of Authoritative Tradition edited by Ken S. Brown, Alison L. Joseph, and Brennan Breed (Link)

The Oxford History of the Ancient Near East: From the Beginnings to Old Kingdom Egypt and the Dynasty of Akkad (Vol.1), edited by Karen Radner, Nadine Moeller, and D. T. Potts (Link)

Ezekiel, Law, and Judahite Identity: A Case for Identity in Ezekiel 1–33 by Joel B. Kemp (Link)

Semitic, Biblical and Jewish Studies: In Honor of Richard C. Steiner, edited by Aron J. Koller, Mordechai Z. Cohen, and Adina Moshavi (Link)

Tales of Royalty: Notions of Kingship in Visual and Textual Narration in the Ancient Near East, edited by Elisabeth Wagner-Durand and Julia Linke (Link)

Essays on Babylonian and Biblical Literature and Religion by Tzvi Abusch (Link)

On My Right Michael, On My Left Gabriel: Angels in Ancient Jewish Culture by Mika Ahuvia (Link)

Contextualizing Jewish Temples, edited by Tova Ganzel and Shalom E. Holtz (Link)

Hebräisch: Biblisch-Hebräische Unterrichtsgrammatik by Michael Pietsch and Martin Rösel (Link)

God’s Law and Order: The Politics of Punishment in Evangelical America by Aaron Griffith (Link)

The Jewish Annotated Bibliography edited by Jonathan Klawans and Lawrence M. Wills (Link)

Three Skeptics and the Bible: La Peyrère, Hobbes, Spinoza, and the Reception of Modern Biblical Criticism by Jeffrey Morrow (Link) [Mainly included for my own interests]

The “God of Israel” in History and Tradition by Michael J. Stahl (Link)

Roundup of Forthcoming (and Recently Released) Books

The last few months have been pretty busy. As such, I haven’t had much opportunity to write for The Biblical Review. One of the unforeseen consequences is that I haven’t been tracking forthcoming and recently released books. In this post, then, I offer a list of various volumes. For each volume, I include the subject matter along with why I am interested in the book. (Please forgive any typographical errors.)

Authoritative Writings in Early Judaism and Early Christianity: Their Origin, Collection, and Meaning, edited by Tobias Nicklas and Jens Schröter. (Link)

“The articles in this collection start with the assumption that the authorization of writings had already begun in Israel and Judaism before the emergence of Christianity and was continued in the first centuries CE by Judaism and Christianity in their respective ways. They deal with a broad range of sources, such as writings which came to be part of the Hebrew Bible, literature from Qumran, the Septuagint, or early Jewish apocalypses. At the same time they deal, for example, with structures of authorization related to New Testament writings, examine the role of authoritative texts in so-called Gnostic schools, and discuss the authority of late antique apocryphal literature.”

Although I am not particularly interested in the New Testament, I am always interested in the notion of authoritative writings and how texts became authoritative.

Un YHWH venant du Sud? by Fabian Pfitzmann. (Link)

Though I have not dealt with much scholar about Yahweh from the south, I interested in perusing this book, as it may contain some helpful summaries about the current state of scholarship on this subject.

Sovereign Authority and the Elaboration of Law in the Bible and the Ancient Near East, by Dylan Johnson. (Link)

“Five Pentateuchal texts (Lev 24:10–23; Num 9:6–14; Num 15:32–36; Num 27:1–11; Num 36:1–12) offer unique visions of the elaboration of law in Israel’s formative past. In response to individual legal cases, Yahweh enacts impersonal and general statutes reminiscent of biblical and ancient Near Eastern law collections. From the perspective of comparative law, Dylan R. Johnson proposes a new understanding of these texts as biblical rescripts: a legislative technique that enabled sovereigns to enact general laws on the basis of particular legal cases. Typological parallels drawn from cuneiform and Roman law illustrate the complex ideology informing the content and the form of these five cases. The author explores how latent conceptions of law, justice, and legislative sovereignty shaped these texts, and how the Priestly vision of law interacted with and transformed earlier legal traditions.”

Like some of the other books, I’m not interested in reading this; however, I am interested in reading some thorough book reviews and getting a sense of Johnson’s contributions and arguments.

The Pillars of the First Temple (1 Kgs 7,15–22): A Study from Ancient Near Eastern, Biblical, Archaeological, and Iconographic Perspectives, by Daniel Prokop. (Link)

“The columns referred to as Jachin and Boaz are certainly one of the most controversial features of the First Temple of Jerusalem. In this volume, Daniel Prokop examines the appearance and the meaning of the twin pillars by approaching them from different perspectives. He investigates the epigraphic evidence from Egypt, Mesopotamia, and Syria-Palestine, defines the relationship between the six different descriptions in the Hebrew Bible, and compares the most important textual witnesses of 1 Kgs 7,15–22, which will provide insight into the narrative development and transmission history of the texts. Studying iconographic data, the author explores a unique way to achieve a better understanding of the material, dimensions, names, location, and decoration of the pillars.”

Dealing with epigraphic and iconographic data in any study can be fruitful, illuminating ambiguous passages in the Hebrew Bible. As such, I am interested not just in how Prokop uses such data but also how he analyzes each data point independent of 1 Kings 7:5–22.

Researching Metaphor in the Ancient Near East, edited by Marta Pallavidini and Ludovico Portuese. (Link)

“This volume edited by Marta Pallavidini and Ludovico Portuese aims to research metaphor from different perspectives by considering its presence in ancient Near Eastern written documents. The contributions focus on several ancient Near Eastern cultures and encompass more than two millennia as well as examine various topics, from Sumerian literature, to Hittite written sources, to Neo-Assyrian art to the Biblical world.”

Simply put, metaphors are important to understand and analyze, as most language is metaphor. As such, the chronological and geographical span of this volume may be extraordinarily helpful for thinking about metaphor.

Writing World History in Late Ming China and the Perception of Maritime Asia, by Elke Papelitzky. (Link)

“This book by Elke Papelitzky studies each of the seven author’s knowledge and perception of the world and focuses especially on the countries connected with China at the maritime border: Siam, Malacca, and Portugal, combining a close textual and paratextual analysis with a biographical study to understand why the authors wrote the texts the way they did. This is the first comprehensive introduction to these texts contributing to an understanding of late Ming historiography as well as the perception of foreign countries by late Ming scholars.”

Although I am not particularly interested int he details of late Ming scholars, I am interested in some of the broader historiographical patterns that Papelitzky identifies, as they may prove to be interesting comparisons to Near Eastern and biblical texts.

The Crimean Karaim Bible, edited by Henryk Jankowski et al. (Link)

“The Bible was the most important canonical book of the Karaites, but only short fragments or individual books have been published. The present two-volume publication is a critical edition of approximately a half of Crimean Karaim Bible. Volume I contains the transcription of sixteen biblical books, the Pentateuch, i.e., Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy; the Five Scrolls, i.e., the Song of Songs, Ruth, Lamentations, and Ecclesiastes; as well as six books of the Writings, i.e., the Psalms, Proverbs, Job, Daniel, Ezra, and Nehemiah. Volume II contains the English translation of all biblical books provided in volume I. The transcription is based on the most complete manuscript from Cambridge and a few other manuscripts, including the earliest ones. Therefore, this is the first publication that makes large portions of the Bible accessible to the reader. Although the oldest known datable manuscripts go back to the seventeenth century, the language of Karaim translation is more archaic. This edition is an important source for the study of Middle Karaim and Middle Turkic languages. The edited text is provided with numerous comments and the introduction traces the history of research. All this is important for the study on the Crimean Karaim Bible since Ebenezer Henderson’s seminal study of 1828.”

These volume consists of what is seemingly an understudied portion of Jewish history as well as biblical manuscripts. As a whole, using this volume as a reference may yield some important divergences between it and other manuscripts.

Writing and Rewriting History in Ancient Israel and Near Eastern Cultures, edited by Isaac Kalimi. (Link)

“Most of the papers collected in this volume were delivered at the conference held in June 2018, Mainz. They discuss recent developments in the analysis of history and historiography in ancient Israel and its surrounding cultures. The scholars compare the compositional and editorial approaches evident in biblical and post-biblical writings with those shown in other ancient literature, while concentrating on a specific theme.”

On issues of historiography, especially when it is related to religious studies issues, I suspect this volume may offer a helpful over of a multitude of debates and discourse about the Hebrew Bible, such as the relationship between Ezekiel 16 and Gilgamesh, the Queen of Heaven, and broader methodological discussion about historiography and the bible.

Building in Assyria: A Philological Perspective, by Johanna Tudea. (Link)

“Johanna Tudeau offers with this book a sketch of the practice and ideology of building in Assyria based on textual evidence. The study focuses on the Assyrian royal inscriptions and state archives, two of the most comprehensive textual corpora available on the topic. The temporal and spatial framework is necessarily broad, from the rise to the fall of Assyria, from one end of the empire to the other. This stands in contrast with a targeted terminological approach: architectural keywords structure the chapters and these follow the stages of the building process. The findings come together in a chapter devoted to the modern significance of ancient realities, where grounds for the investigation and interpretation of space are proposed to serve philologists and archaeologists alike, hopefully facilitating the exchange between disciplines.”

This volume looks interesting for two reasons. First, considering the intensity of debates about the Hebrew Bible, history, material culture, and archaeology, the book may serve as a guide book for folks engaged in biblical studies. Second, with portions Ezekiel, Numbers, and Leviticus spend so much time describing physical structures, in will be interesting to Tudea’s conclusions about building in Assyria based on textual evidence.

Between Temple and TombThe Demotic Ritual Texts of Bodl. MS. Egypt. a. 3(P), by Mark Smith. (Link)

“The ritual texts edited in this volume offer an excellent opportunity to explore these and related issues. Most of them are known to have been employed both for the benefit of the god Osiris and for ordinary deceased people, in certain cases, during one and the same period of Egypt’s history. This is one of their most interesting and striking features. They stand at the interface between temple cult and cult of the dead and allow us to trace the transmission of beliefs and practices from one sphere to the other.”

From my experience, folks frequently ignore Demotic texts. That said, ritual text about death rituals, the Osirian temple cult, private funerary cults, and their fluidity sounds interesting and fun. Plus, there is quite a bit of work in biblical studies on material culture, death, and the Hebrew Bible. As such, this volume may have some interesting nuggets of information.

Legal Documents in Ancient Societies: Accounts and Bookkeeping in the Ancient World, by Andrea Jördens and Uri Yiftach. (Link)

“The volume is dedicated to an early and seemingly ubiquitous type of text, which often followed certain classification criteria and which, for the sake of easier clarity, was gladly subjected to a specially developed layout. In addition to the discussions of individual artefacts or artefact groups as well as literary texts, there are considerations of ancient and modern terminology, the choice of writing media used for this purpose, the bodies entrusted with data collection, the purposes pursued with it, the further processing and archiving of the collected data as well as their organisation at the various levels of administration.”

This volume contains a wide range of content. With so little evidence for Israelite/Judean scribal and bookkeeping practices, it could serve as an interesting point of comparison with biblical texts. Likewise, it just looks interesting.

Yahweh before IsraelGlimpses of History in a Divine Name, by Daniel Fleming. (Link)

While the book has no description yet, the content sounds intriguing, at least based on the title.

Divine Aggression in Psalms and Inscriptions: Vengeful Gods and Loyal Kings, by Collin Cornell. (Link)

“The aggression of the biblical God named Yhwh is notorious. Students of theology, the Bible, and the Ancient Near East know that the Hebrew Bible describes Yhwh acting destructively against his client country, Israel, and against its kings. But is Yhwh uniquely vengeful, or was he just one among other, similarly ferocious patron gods? To answer this question, Collin Cornell compares royal biblical psalms with memorial inscriptions. He finds that the Bible shares deep theological and literary commonalities with comparable texts from Israel’s ancient neighbours. The centrepiece of both traditions is the intense mutual loyalty of gods and kings. In the event that the king’s monument and legacy comes to harm, gods avenge their individual royal protégé. In the face of political inexpedience, kings honour their individual divine benefactor.”

I am particularly interested in seeing how Cornell draws together memorial inscriptions and biblical psalms, especially in light of recent research on funerary inscriptions.

The Fundamentals of Hebrew Accents: Divisions and Exegetical Roles beyond Syntax, by Sung Jin Park. (Link)

“This book is designed to serve as a textbook for intermediate Hebrew students and above. Sung Jin Park presents the fundamental features of the Tiberian Hebrew accents, focusing on their divisions and exegetical roles. Providing innovative methods for diagramming biblical texts, the volume explores the two major rules (hierarchy and dichotomy) of disjunctive accents. Students will also attain biblical insights from the exegetical application of the biblical texts that Hebrew syntax alone does not provide. Park’s volume shows how the new perspectives on Hebrew accents enhance our understanding of biblical texts.”

As Tiberian Hebrew accents weren’t discussed extensively in my training, I am interested, generally, in what Sung Jin Park will bring to the table.

Genres of Rewriting in Second Temple Judaism: Scribal Composition and Transmission, by Molly M. Zahn. (Link)

d“In this book, Molly Zahn investigates how early Jewish scribes rewrote their authoritative traditions in the course of transmitting them, from minor edits in the course of copying to whole new compositions based on prior works. Scholars have detected evidence for rewriting in a wide variety of textual contexts, but Zahn’s is the first book to map manuscripts and translations of biblical books, so-called ‘parabiblical’ compositions, and the sectarian literature from Qumran in relation to one another. She introduces a new, adaptable set of terms for talking about rewriting, using the idea of genre as a tool to compare and contrast different cases. Although rewriting has generally been understood as a vehicle for biblical interpretation, Zahn moves beyond that framework to demonstrate that rewriting was a pervasive textual strategy in the Second Temple period. Her book contributes to a powerful new model of early Jewish textuality, illuminating the rich and diverse culture out of which both rabbinic Judaism and early Christianity eventually emerged.”

Simply put, I am interested in seeing what Zahn offers, especially in light books like Eva Mroczek’s The Literary Imagination in Jewish Antiqutiy, which, while I haven’t had the opportunity, I look forward to reading.

The Egyptian Priests of the Graeco-Roman Period: An Analysis of the Basis of the Egyptian and Graeco-Roman Literary and Paraliterary Sources, by Marina Escolano-Poveda. (Link)

“Marina Escolano-Poveda offers for the first time a detailed analysis of the most relevant Egyptian priestly characters from Egyptian and Graeco-Roman literary and paraliterary sources. The examination of these sources contrasts the self-presentation of Egyptian priests in texts created and circulated within the temple environment with images presented by outside sources, providing a solid base to analyze how these figures were seen in their historical milieu. In the second part of the book, the results of the previous analysis are contrasted with a series of widely-used models employed to understand the historical and intellectual context of Egyptian religion and the Egyptian priesthood in the Graeco-Roman period, questioning the usefulness and applicability of such models.”

I am interested in this book for two reasons. First, I would like to understand better Egyptian religion of the 1st millennium. Second, I am generally interested in priestly construction during this period on account of Judeans, or whatever we want to call them, living in Egypt.

Judging Faith, Punish Sin: Inquisitions and Consistories in the Early Modern World, edited by Charles H. Parker and Gretchen Starr-LeBeau. (Link)

“Rooted in local archives and addressing specific themes, the essays survey the state of scholarship and chart directions for future inquiry and, taken as a whole, demonstrate the unique convergence of penitential practice, legal innovation, church authority, and state power, and how these forces transformed Christianity.”

While outside the boundaries of Judaism and Hebrew Bible proper, I have been interested in the notion of so-called sin as of late. So, I am interested in see what this volume contributes in terms of construction of sin/social transgression in the early modern world.

Demons, Angels, and Writing in Ancient Judaism, by Annette Yoshiko Reed. (Link)

I wont’ even include the description here because I have heard nothing but good things about Reed’s work. I look forward to reading it!

God’s Law and Order: The Politics of Punishment in Evangelical America, by Aaron Griffith. (Link)

“America incarcerates on a massive scale. Despite recent reforms, the United States locks up large numbers of people—disproportionately poor and nonwhite—for long periods and offers little opportunity for restoration. Aaron Griffith reveals a key component in the origins of American mass incarceration: evangelical Christianity.”

To criticize and reflect on our interpretations of sin in the Hebrew Bible, it is necessary to recognize the history of how the US Christianity, namely, evangelical Christianity, constructed, fought for, and established norms for social transgressions.

The Origins of the Bible in Early Modern Political Thought: Revelation and the Boundaries of Scripture, by Travis DeCook. (Link)

“Travis DeCook explores the theological and political innovations found in early modern accounts of the Bible’s origins. In the charged climate produced by the Reformation and humanist historicism, writers grappled with the tension between the Bible’s divine and human aspects, and they produced innovative narratives regarding the agencies and processes through which the Bible came into existence and was transmitted. DeCook investigates how these accounts of Scripture’s production were taken up beyond the expected boundaries of biblical study, and were redeployed as the theological basis for wide-reaching arguments about the proper ordering of human life.”

The Reformation, the Bible’s divine origins, and humanity? This sounds great to me. It also contributes (likely) to understand early discourse about biblical authority that shaped the field of biblical studies. Perhaps. We’ll have to see.

Reconstructing the Temple: The Royal Rhetoric of Temple Renovation in the Ancient Near East and Israel, by Andrew R. Davis. (Link)

Though this book has been out for a while, I remain interested in reading it.

A History of Death in the Hebrew Bible, by Matthew Suriano. (Link)

Like the previous book, this has been out for a while. Perhaps I will finally be able to read it in the next few months!

The Emergence of Sin: Cosmic Tyrant in Romans, by Matthew Croasmun. (Link)

With my current interest in sin, this volume looks particularly interesting, especially as the description says that sin is “an emergent feature of a vast human network of transgression.” I have no idea what to expect. Also, it is a few years old. Even so, I am interested.

Philo of Alexandria: On the Contemplative Life; Introduction, Translation and Commentary, by Joan E. Taylor and David M. Hay. (Link)

It’s always good to familiarize myself with classics, especially when they include new commentary and an updated bibliography.

Isaiah, Septuagint Commentary Series, by Ken Penner. (Link)

This commentary, introduction, and translation may be helpful for me when I write my review of Roberts’s commentary on First Isaiah.

Three Hundred Years of Death: The Egyptian Funerary Industry in the Ptolematic Empire, by Maria Cannata. (Link)

“Maria Cannata provides a detailed survey of the organisation of the necropolises and the funerary workers, as well as their role in the practical aspects of the mummification, funeral, burial, and mortuary cult of the deceased, in Ptolemaic Egypt (332-30 BC). The author gathers together and synthesises hundreds of the original textual sources, as well as the relevant archaeological sources, on the organisation of the funerary industry and its practitioners, revealing important regional and chronological variations overlooked in studies focusing on a limited geographical area, a shorter timeframe, or a smaller group of documents.”

As I already noted, death and funerals is a hot topic these days. This may yield some interesting nuggets of information.

The Meaning of Color in Ancient Mesopotamia, by Shiyanthi Thavapalan. (Link)

“Shiyanthi Thavapalan offers the first in-depth study of the words and expressions for colors in the Akkadian language (c. 2500-500 BCE). By combining philological analysis with the technical investigation of materials, she debunks the misconception that people in Mesopotamia had a limited sense of color and positions the development of Akkadian color language as a corollary of the history of materials and techniques in the ancient Near East.”

Colors are important in biblical texts, such as Leviticus, Exodus, and Isaiah 1. So, some insight on color would be nice.

The Expression of Emotions in Ancient Egypt and Mesopotamia, edited by Shih-Wei Hsu and Jaume Llop Raduà. (Link)

The content in this book could be useful for comparison with biblical and Jewish texts.

Review: “A Wayside Shrine in Northern Moab” edited by P.M. Michèle Daviau and Margreet L. Steiner

OxbowP.M. Michèle Daviau and Margreet L. Steiner. Eds. A Wayside Shrine in Northern Moab: Excavations in Wadi ath-Thamad. Oxford: Oxbow Books.

Excavations at Wadi ath-Thamad Site WT-13 began in 1996 south of al-Rumayl. This volume presents the findings and analysis of material from the site, significant for its cultic nature. In what follows, I will first describe the site in totality through a summary of each contribution. Subsequently, I will note significant findings and conclusions. Finally, I will explore how the data in this volume contributes to more specific conversations in biblical and religious studies.

P.M. Michèle Daviau provides a broad overview of WT-13—especially concerning its cultic character—and describes the technical aspects of excavation history, stratigraphy, and documentary and recording methods (Chapter One). Because religious ritual is central to interpreting WT-13, Daviau subsequently lays out previous studies on cult behavior in the region and draws from Renfrew’s criteria for identifying ritual behavior with material correlates in order to broadly characterize WT-13 as a site of religious activity, parallel to other sites throughout the Levant (Chapter Two). Next, Daviau describes the site’s stratigraphy, finds, and architecture in order to provide an overview of the site’s history. Stratum IIIB (Late Iron I to Early Iron II) suggests “that rituals related to funerary customs were carried out by the local in habitants” (29). Subsequently, Stratum IIIA indicates that layers of fill “above the cooking installations effectively decommissioned the ritual site” (31), a practice common in Palestine and the Transjordan during the Bronze Age. While food preparation rituals ceased, the subsequent stratum points to a major cultural change, as it features “a wide variety of votive offerings and iconographic representation” (36). Stratum II (Iron II) consisted of three stages: building up the soil layers, constructing a wall forming a temenos, using it as a cultic site, and eventually remodeling the shrine. Materials show clear Phoenician, Assyrian, and local influence, meaning Stratum II should be dated between the 8th and 7th centuries BCE. Finally, Stratum I (Post-Iron Age, Nabataean–Early Roman) indicates small use during the period; however, Stratum II shows the clearest evidence of activity (Chapter Three).

In Part Two, specific data sets are analyzed: images of gods and worshipers, various small finds, pottery analyzed from the perspective of Central Jordanian tradition, tripod cups and specialized vessels, the provenance of statues, figurines, and pottery, faunal bone collection, shells and fossil invertebrates, sea urchin fossils, beads, and Nabataean and Roman objects. Part Three considers landscape archaeology and how WT-13 may have functioned as sacred landscape in the central Jordan.

A few conclusions and observations by contributions to the volume are notable. First, data provides insight into social aspects of Iron Age II Moab. For example, WT-13 pottery analysis indicates “that household pottery of both the early and late repertoires of WT-13 was locally made and stood firmly in the pottery tradition of Central Jordan” (177, 202). At the same time, though, weight stones at WT-13 are notably like those at Lachish and Tel Jezreel. These conclusions possibly speak to the socioeconomic situation: although there is not clear trade in terms of pottery, using the same type of weight stones indicates that they engaged in similar trading partners that required a degree of consistency between cities in the area. This correlates well with Master’s construction of the southern Levantine economy: “a system of tiered markets radiated out from the ports of the Mediterranean across political boundaries to reach the smallest hamlets on the desert fringe. The impetus for the market was generated by non-local goods which were an integral part of daily life” (2014, 89). In the same paper, he also notes that many objects, such as stone, fish shell, wood or metals, were imported in exchange for agricultural products (87). Returning to WT-13, the finds may fit this pattern: objects perceived as “exotic” or “Other” were traded and used in cult ritual; however, pottery was unique to Central Jordan because they did not trade it as frequently with nearby regions. Considering that WT-13 and al-Rumayl were on an important trade road, though, this is not too much of a surprise.

In terms of religious rituals, two observations are notable. First, though scholars previously posited that fossil sea urchins as votive objects, WT-13 is “the first direct indication of their occurrence in a votive context in Jordan” (221). As such, it is essential to reconstructing cult rituals in the Central Jordan and, more broadly, their diversity throughout the Levant. Second, Daviau places Stratum III of WT-13 into the broader context of rituals in the Levant, connecting the site the patterns of ritual meals, funerary meals, and decommissioning of cult site (274). Interestingly, while it may be explained as simple cultural change, the shift from site of ritual meals (Stratum III) to a temenos for ritual behavior with anthropomorphic figures (Stratum II) makes me wonder if there is any link between Stratum III and II. That is, did Stratum II arise because of the precedent of Stratum III, a sort of outgrowth of previous rituals practices, or did Stratum II arise without any regard for Stratum III, meaning no clear relationship between ritual meals and cult temenos ritual practices? Though I can’t answer here, it would be interesting to consider, as it would clarify patterns of religious development in the Levant.

Also interesting is that the site was “abandoned or destroyed in the late 7th–early 6th century, indicative of significant cultural change throughout the southern Levant” (77). As is commonly known, Samaria was destroyed around the same time period. Thus, the abandonment of the site in this time period is notable because it corresponds well with a period of regional unrest and conflict throughout the region.

Finally, Daviau mention that “the case of the deep perforated cup is challenging because there are no parallels… pointing to their function. This dilemma can be seen in the assemblages from Kuntillet ‘Ajrud, a site with religious iconography but not one perforated cup” (179; italics added for emphasis). In his recent volume, Schniedewind (2019) argues against approaching Kuntillet ‘Ajrud as a cultic site but rather as a military outpost or trading post. Thus, the relationship between iconography and Kuntillet ‘Ajrud is a poor example to juxtapose with WT-13.

In conclusion, A Wayside Shrine in Moab is a splendid volume for both the archaeology of the Levant broadly construed and for religion in the Levant. As an all too often understudied region, the volume is a welcome addition. Moreover, with a large range of data—data also available online—scholars will undoubtedly engage it and link it with other finds throughout the region.

 

References

Master, Daniel M. 2014. “Economy and Exchange in the Iron Age Kingdoms of the Southern Levant.” BASOR 372: 81–97.

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

Course Project for Students

Ken Brown posted this on Facebook. I am posting it mainly so that I can considering using this model in the future.

…I asked them take a biblical text of their choice and transform it into a new genre, medium or perspective, and then write a short reflection on how the change in form affects what details can or must be included, and how this affects meaning.

I was amazed at the creativity of their work, from original songs about Genesis 1 and the Flood, to poetry retelling the binding of Isaac from his perspective and the 10 Plagues from the Egyptians’ perspectives, to paintings, faux stained glass, comics, 3D models, news reports, and one absolutely astounding charcoal drawing of Cain killing Abel. Then we got to talk in detail about how form shapes and constrains meaning and why it is essential to pay close attention to genre and context when reading biblical literature. This is my new favorite assignment.

Super Brief Notes on New Historicism

The following is a few quotes and notes from Practicing New Historicism by Catherine Gallagher and Stephen Greenblatt (1997)

New historicism “is to imagine that the writers we love did not spring up from nowhere and that their achievements must draw upon a whole life-world and that this life-world has undoubtedly left other traces of itself” (13).

I like this comment.

“Out of the vast array of textual traces in a culture, the identification of units suitable for analysis is problematized. If every trace of a culture is part of a massive text, how can one identify the boundaries of these units?” (14)

Their comment is remarkably similar to many of the criticisms raised against Kristeva’s formulation of intertextuality. Such critiques note that it is difficult to establish boundaries when employing an intertextual method.

 

Philosophical Friday: Thomas Aquinas and Metaphor

Thomas Aquinas was a philosopher and theologian from a family of Italian nobles. During his life (1225-1274), he wrote more than sixty books. Among his most well-known works is Summa Theologica. Within the book, he deals with issues of biblical interpretation, among other things. In the Ninth and Tenth articles, he deals with two issues important in modern literary discourse: metaphor and whether or not words in the Christian biblical tradition can have several senses.

Concerning the first, he lays a framework for how he understands the relationship between materials and text, a text he perceives as being the Holy Writ. Within this framework, “spiritual truths are fittingly taught under the likeness of material things” [1] in order that all people may grasp and understand the text. As such, poetry (text) and materials are in relation via metaphorical expression. This metaphorical connection between poetry and materials can take two forms: (a) a generic form for men to simply please humans or (b) a sacred form which leverages metaphor for divine truths. Moreover, the metaphorical connection between text and material is sometimes obscure within “Holy Writ” in order to allow people to exercise their minds and prevent the impious from ridiculing the text.

Concerning the Tenth Article, he sees multiple layers of sense: the allegorical (the Hebrew Bible signifying relation to New Testament literature); the moral sense (things done by or signifying Jesus); anagogical sense (related to eternal glory); literal sense (the intention of the author, namely God). Of these, the last sense is central. The literal sense, for Aquinas, contains multiple senses because he perceive God as the author.

From these points, I find a few features notable.

First, Aquinas approaches the text with the assumption that “God” is the quintessential author. God being a transcendent deity who is all-powerful, perception of God as the author influences how Aquinas approaches and defines the types of metaphor. His second understanding of metaphor, sacred metaphor which communicates divine truths, echoes the concerns expressed by authors like Longinus. The notion of “sacred metaphor” is similar, though not equivalent to, the sublime. As a result, within Aquinas’ writing, the Bible receives a special status in comparison with other books, wherein he essentially employs circular reasoning: the Bible is sublime because God wrote it; and God wrote the bible so it is sublime.

Second, Aquinas claims that texts don’t always make sense because God wants to train minds and prevent ridicule. He is much like other writers that I have discussed: this is his way of dealing with texts which are lacking cogency and coherency. Though such things are always lacking to a certain degree, human minds naturally and instinctively attempt to fix the ruptures in the flow of a text.

[1] The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism, 191.

Philosophical Friday: Longinus and Sublimity

Longinus was a Hellenistic Jew, or at least an author familiar with Jewish culture, from the 1st century CE. He is most well known for his work On Sublimity. In this work, he argues that the best literature is sublime. Though difficult to identify in literature, he identifies five sources of sublimity: great thoughts, strong and inspired emotion, certain kinds of figures, noble diction, and dignified and elevated word-arrangement. Each of these points, he suggests, is a place where the audience of literature can come into contact with the sublime.

What, though, is the sublime? He comments: “When a man of a sense and literary experience hears something many times over, and it fails to dispose his mind to greatness or to leave him with more to reflect upon than was contained in the mere words, but comes instead to seem valueless on repeated inspection, this is not true sublimity; it endures only for the moment of hearing. Real sublimity contains much food for reflection, is difficult or rather impossible to resist, and makes a strong and ineffaceable impression on the memory” [1]. As Jacqueline Vayntrub carefully describes in her volume Beyond Orality, this very notion of literature and poetry becomes a keys in describing and organizing biblical poetry during the modern period.

It is worth noting the underlying philosophical and theoretical principles which inform, support, and frame Longinus’ understanding of the sublime. His notion of the sublime is based on a broad generalization about humans, namely that humans have “in our minds from the start an irresistible desire for anything which is great and, in relation to ourselves, supernatural” [2].  He proceeds by describing how people admire the large rivers, not the little streams. Likewise, people feel awe before volcanoes, not candles.

In pointing to this, I wish to make one observation: the way we describe the quality of literature and engage with it is often informed by the way we describe the quality of nature and engage with it. This is certainly the case with Longinus. Underlying his notion of sublimity is an assumption about how humans relate to nature.

[1] The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism, 148.

[2] The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism, 161.

Philosophical Friday: Horace and Poetics

Horace is most well known for his Ars Poetica (Art of Poetry). He lived during the 1st century BCE and, unlike Plato, see more value in poetry than Plato. Here, I will briefly lay out a few observations of Horace’s Ars Poetica which stood out to me.

First, Horace’s understanding of genre is much more theoretical and developed than Aristotle and Plato. Recall that Aristotle and Plato had relatively rigid understandings of genre. Though not commenting explicitly on genre, Horace’s comments on speech and expression can be applied to genre as well: “Many terms shall grow back which now have fallen away, and those now held in esteem shall fall, if our poetic practices so approves. Such is the criterion by which judgement, rules and standards for speech expression are to be discovered” [1]. Expressed another way, Horace at least recognizes that genre conventions change over time, often the result of critical reflections.

Second, one way modern scholars have approached genre is by thinking of genre as a simulated speech situation [2]. Horace supports this notion inasmuch as he recognizes that the speaker portrayed in a text should be understood in light of his/her social circumstances: “If a speaker’s words are not constant with his fortunes, the people (both horse and foot) will burst out laughing! It will make a lot of difference whether a god is speaking or a hero; a mature old man or one still in flower of youth; a strong-minded dame or a busy nurse, a far-travelled merchant or a cultivator of a green farm, a Colchian or Assyiran, or someone reared at Thebes or Argos” [3].

In other words, the audience has certain assumptions of a speaker. As such, the speaker and speech must align with each other so that the social circumstances of the speaker fit with the speech itself. When these do not align, the audience laughs! At base, then, the speaker of a situation impacts how the audience interprets and understands the speech. This is akin to genre: the genre designation of a text impacts how the audience interprets and understands the speech.

Third, and finally, Horace’s understanding of genres is based on an evolutionary model, akin to Aristotle. Here, he offers a historiography of the origins of Greek genres: “They say the unknown genre of the tragic muse was discovered by Thespis, who wheeled his poems about on wagons for men to sing and act, their faces well stained with lees. After him, as inventor of the mask and the noble robe, Aeschylus laid out a stage with modest sized beams, producing plays which resounded grandly and strode on the buskin” [4].

His observations are important on a few fronts. First, he views genres in the same vein as Aristotle, slowly developing over time and becoming more and more refined. This notion is still present in modern discourse about genre, especially with the appearance of the modern novel. Second, though no surprise, Horace’s historiography of genres is directed related to materiality and social situation. As such, it suggests that any understanding of genre or genre development must also be conscious of materiality and social situation.

[1] The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism, 135.

[2] Simeon Chavel, “Knowledge of the Lord in the Hebrew Bible,” in KNOW Vol. 2, No. 1 (2018), 48-49.

[3] The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism, 136.

[4] The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism, 139.