Philosophical Friday: Aristotle and Genre

Aristotle offers a few categories for genres, such as epic and tragedy. Notably, though, these generic categories are outgrowths of his philosophy. As such, people who use categories like epic and tragedy should be aware of the origin of these notions. So, in what follows, I will briefly lay out how Aristotles categories of tragedy and epic are related to his philosophy. As a result, it will point to how any categories used to approach and organize literature are reflective of cultural and social assumptions.

First, Aristotle approaches the art of poetry as an imitation. So, whether epic poetry, tragedy, comedy, or music, each is an imitation. As imitations, they use different means, manners, and modes of presentation. Moreover, Aristotle frames the notion of imitations as an intrinsic aspect of being human, located in human nature at childhood: “Thus from childhood it is instinctive in human beings to imitate, and man differs from the other animals as the most imitative of all and getting his first lessons by imitation, and by instinct also all human beings take pleasure in imitations” (The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism 2018, 101). Put simply, all humanity is by nature imitative.

Second, there are varying degrees of precision and accuracy with regard to imitation. Though Aristotle discusses multiple categories, one will suffice. Concerning characters, the construction of them differs depending on the particular genre within which a character functions. For example, in tragedy, the character, namely the imitation of a person, is “better than the average.” By contrast, comedy “is an imitation of persons worse than the average” (The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism 2018, 103). In other words, the characterization of imitated people differs between genres. Such differences are, seemingly from Aristotle’s perspective, objective differences, not subjective.

Now, Aristotle spends more time distinguishing categories of imitation; however, for the sake of time, it is sufficient to say that Aristotle has relatively rigid genre categories which are reflective of his own culture and society.

These two points lead to my third and final point. Concerning the category of tragedy, he comments on the evolution and progression of it: “little by little tragedy grew greater as the poets developed what they perceived of its emergent form, and after passing through many changes, it came to a stop, being now in possession of its specific nature” (The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism 2018, 102). Put another way, Aristotle derived his notion of genre by analogy with biological things. Describing how genre has a “nature” in Aristotle, Averinstev comments: “As the development of an embryo and youngling strives towards the state of the adult individual, so too the first experiments in the area of tragic poetry were subjected to a goal – to “at last acquiring its distinctive nature”” (Averinstev 1989, 32). So, the ability of poets to imitate developed over time, eventually solidifying into genres of distinctive nature. Simply put, his philosophical notions of imitation inform his description and understanding of genre.

What this demonstrates is that Aristotle’s genres are directly related to, if not an outgrowth from, his philosophy and worldview. As such, we should, ourselves, be conscious of how our own philosophies and worldviews impact our approaches to  and categorizations of literature.

Additionally, Aristotle’s evolutionary description of genre is problematic. For, though he fails to address it, I am left wondering: Even once tragic poetry has arrived at its goal, a distinctive nature in its life, what happens where tragedy dies? In other words, Aristotle’s understanding of genre is convenient; however, it is too rigid to stand the test of time. That is not to say, though, that his work is unhelpful. Many of the ways in which he describes ways to approach literature is helpful and productive. It is, rather, the synthesis of his observations as generic classifications which are problematic and unsustainable.

Philosophical Friday: Plato and Poetry

Plato_Pio-Clemetino_Inv305Though many have heard of Plato, less have read Plato or are familiar with his ideas. I am particularly interested in Plato’s approach to poetry and the notion of the Sublime. As such, I will briefly lay out how he approaches poetry and for what reasons.

At base, Plato perceives everything in the world as being based on a single form. So even though many imitations of that form are created and built, there remains only one true form of that object. For example, if a craftsman constructs a bed, it is based on the form of a bed; however, no craftsman can create the form itself. The form itself is only created by god. When the craftsman makes a bed, it is at second remove from nature because the craftsman specializes in making that particular form.

The painter and poet, though, Plato describes as being thrice removed from the original form, and hence he is deemed an imitator. As such, truth is not found in poetry and paintings, then; rather, the work of the painter or the poet is simply an allusion.

Moreover, he applies this framework to stories about the gods. In Book III of The Republic, he discusses stories about gods that are told to young, impressionable minds. These stories, he suggests, are often times problematic because they do not accurately depict the gods. For example, he cites Homer’s description of the gods: “Irrepressible laughter spread among the blessed gods / as they saw their Hephaestus bustling about the palace” (The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism 2019, 69). In response, he claims that Homer’s view cannot be accepted because Homer does not represent the truth of the gods.

Put another way, Plato perceives Homer’s poetry to be twice or thrice removed from the truth, probably thrice. As such, he considers it to be a lie, an illusion. Therefore, it is considered to be untruthful by him.

Now, although it is Longinus who eventually highlights the centrality of the Sublime in poetry, this short discussion of Plato demonstrates how the notion of “truthfulness” is central to everything in life. With regard to gods, poetry, which is true and good for society, should accurately depict his preconceived notion about how the gods function. As such, theological content which aligns with Plato’s theological presuppositions are considered to be the most truthful.

The implication of this is that, while Jacqueline Vayntrub (2019) is correct to argue that the centrality of the Sublime in reading Biblical poetry finds roots in Longinus, the root of the centrality of theological content, namely the Sublime, reaches back even further to the very foundations of Western thought. These foundations of the centrality of the Sublime, though expressed in rudimentary form, are evident in Plato (5th century BCE).

Review: “Beyond Orality: Biblical Poetry on its Own Terms” by Jacqueline Vayntrub

Jacqueline Vayntrub. Beyond Orality: Biblical Poetry on it owns Terms. New York: Routledge, 2019. 252 pp., $140 (hardback).Orality

For nearly three centuries, ‘ orality’ has served as a framework for understanding biblical texts, especially in terms of their formation and imagined origins; however, as Jacqueline Vayntrub demonstrates throughout her study, the Great Divide framework remains active. As such, she aims to shift to a distinct notion of orality. Rather than interrogating the orality of poetry in terms of transmission, she focuses on the literary claims of biblical texts about their orality or literary transmission. One such literary claim is that poetry has a dimension of orality inasmuch as it is performed by characters in the biblical text. Put another way, poetry is almost always “configured either explicitly as speech or implicitly so” (7). In this view, orality is a literary trope attending to “how characters and speakers perform certain kinds of speech in the written text” (9), indicating how texts should be read.

In Chapter One, Vayntrub lays out how the ways biblical narratives are framed “determine the very way we understand the biblical texts” (20). This framing contributed to the ‘Great Divide’ in Biblical Studies, namely the divide between pre-developed oral and developed prose. Drawing primarily from Johann Gottfried Herder and Herman Gunkel, she shows that the developmental framework, at base, perceives the oral and poetic to be more archaic than the written and prosaic. She suggests that such a developmental framework is the consequence of how the biblical narrative is framed: “In biblical narrative, poetry is framed as a past oral discourse in the voice of characters, and its language is often – whether by transmission or deliberate design – more archaic than its prose frame” (22). This is also evidence in Shir Hashirim Rabbah, Francis Bacon, and Giambattista Vico, whose readings are reflective of the Great Divide and a consequence of how the Hebrew Bible frames texts. For though Bacon, Vico, and Shir Hashirim Rabbah had distinct goals, they nonetheless had similar theories of literary origin. Put simply, “the biblical authors have shaped traditional modes of expression such that they now reflect the characteristics of those characters” (32).

In Chapter Two, Vayntrub demonstrates how the essence of biblical poetry is usually identified as the mashal; however, this was always mediated “through the influential aesthetic theory of the time” (37). Narrating a genealogy of mashal as a poetic concept, she initially points to Lowth’s parallelism as being derived from a classical rhetorician Christian Schöttgen, who wrote 20 years prior to Lowth’s seminal lecture. Categorizing Hebrew poetry as mashal is also evident in medieval Jewish Spain. Moses ibn Ezra, echoing Aristotle and Plato, perceives the style of a mashal, of poetry, to be deceptive, though not necessarily the content. Moses ibn Tibbon understands mashal as part of a spectrum (literal, mashal, and poetic), mashal being an intermediate discourse, not fully false (poetry) or true (literal). Shem tov ibn Falaquera struggle similarly with the notion of truth in poetry.

In each case, “The essence of poetry was to be located with the audience, not the poet” (45), namely the effects upon the audience. During the Renaissance, John Dennis adapted the notion of Sublime into poetry, the earliest forms of poetry being Sublime. Paired with Vico’s notion of the origins of language, Herder brought these ideas into conversation with biblical poetry, as did Lowth. Lowth’s understanding of the mashal is that it was “property expressive of the poetic style” (49). With this, he distinguishes between didactic and sublime, indicating that Sublime poems, those on religion, were truer poetry. As such, the proverbs were not sublime. In other words, his “evaluation placed poetry with theological content in a position of privilege” (51). Herder, developing this notion, understood Hebrew poetry and the sublime as an opportunity to identify the sublime with genius of human authors. And with the subsequent works of Johann Gottfried Eichhorn, Georg Heinrich Ewald, and Michaelis, the mashal was officially denotative of a state prior to poetry. As parallelism became popular in the 20th century, Stephen Geller, Michael O’Connor, James Kugel, and Adele Berlin came to identify poetry essence with parallelism. In all, these understandings of mashal did not “attend to the mashal’s persistent incompatibility to external categories of poetic genres” and, as such, “results in its identification as “poetry,” writ large” (59).

Chapter Three explores how mashal as a genre within wisdom literature is typically defined as a result of circular thinking and logic. To frame the chapter, she lays out three major issues with viewing mashal as a proverb. First, she points to how identification of mashal as a genre is rooted in circular thinking, wherein scholars use words from proverbs as a means of identifying whether or not other things fit into the “wisdom” genre – Proverbs being the paradigmatic mashal. Even so, mashal typically occurs outside of traditional wisdom literature. Second, because form-critical approaches see oral traditions as earlier, a diachronic perspective is assumed in literary forms of the mashal, not considering that mashal may simply be incompatible with modern literary categories. Third, she looks to HALOT, BDB, LXX, and the Vulgate, clearly showing that mashal cannot consistently be translated as “proverb.”

Shifting gears, Vayntrub focuses on how mashal is employed to frame speech in biblical texts. She puts forth three characteristic uses of mashal as a frame: in narratives, the mashal is a speech performance; mashal sometimes denotes a speech transmitted across generations; and mashal asserts conventional views. Concerning transmission and conventional views, she looks at two points – folkloric studies and mashal as oral register – which lead her to conclude that the structure of speech must be identified, as well as the oral register and the implied social context.

Highlighting the framing of Biblical texts as shaping analysis of compositions, Chapter Four analyzes how Balaam’s speeches are framed. First, she shows how the frame and speech performances of Balaam are thematically and terminologically connected to the mashals in Gen 49 and Deut 33, the broader concern of J with blessing fulfillment, and contrasts Balaam with Deut 33 and Gen 49 inasmuch as Balaam is a non-Israelite medium. Second, she analyzes Balaam’s speech from multiple perspectives. Broadly, she suggests that the narrative frames the speeches as instructional discourse (mashal), though he still participate in prophetic activity. Moreover, the speeches are all framed with Balak as the audience, the mashal primarily being observations of the world and categories, touching on issues of Yahweh’s authority over Balaam. At base, then, the mashal classifies and categorizes the world and its actors with various structures in order to make claims about those categories. Third, she analyzes the content and structure for each of Balaam’s mashals, examining the particular claim in each mashal. Though framed as Yahweh’s words in Balaam’s mouth, the speaker “articulates his own observations, makes generalizations about the world and its actors from these observations, and then particularizes the generalizations for specific situation” (134). On this basis, she suggests that Balaam’s speeches are primarily instructional, not prophetic.

Continuing her discussion of mashal in Chapter Five, Vayntrub looks to Isaiah 14 and 1 Sam 24 in order to further illuminate how mashals are framed. First, she analyzes Is 14, demonstrating how the mashal, as expository discourse, “uses the particular case of one ruler who aspired to belike the deity” (165). And in order to explain elements of Is 14 that are not clearly mashal, she suggests that the mashal in Is 14 incorporate elements of the qinah, which is “the proper discourse of failure” (147). Second, she analyzes David’s mashal in 1 Sam 24. Continuing with the notion of the mashal as expository discourse, she shows how David’s use of a mashal contextually bolsters claims that he cannot be violent to Saul, a performance of shared, authoritative knowledge from antiquity. Finally, she considers what it means to become as a mashal. Drawing parallels with the notion of become a horror, she suggests that היה למשׁל is similar – to become the subject of future expository משׁל from which generalizations about the world and its actors may be drawn.

In light of her extensive discussion of orality in Biblical texts, Chapter Six analyzes how titles and tales, broadly construed, frame speech performances. The object of study is Proverbs. First, she emphasizes the literary value of titles as enabling us to better contextualize Proverbs within ancient Near Eastern instruction literature. Second, she identifies a spectrum of types of speech performance phrases in non-narrative texts: extended narrative, minimal narrative (with a verb of performance or transmission), and non-narrative frame (with genre and an individual, typically called a title). With this typology, Vayntrub looks towards other ancient Near Eastern instruction texts, all of which “fictionally represent a moment and situation of performance in their frame” and “contextualizes and generically marks the advice that follows” (192), each using extended narrative. Strikingly distinct is that the frames in Proverbs do not “stage a performance of the named figure, and it is not clear from the titles who is in fact speaking these texts apart from the text itself” (196). This, among other details, indicates a degree of recognition within the texts of Proverbs about its textual nature as a mediator of instruction: “By attributing its disembodied inscribed text to a legendary past figure who embodies wise speech, the book of Proverbs implies that writing has the capacity to preserve and transmit the internalized speech of tradents” (205). She concludes by directing the readers to four implications.

1)      Socially, there is value in the performance of speech by certain individuals; however, within texts, the presentation of speech as an authorizing device is a literary trope (204-205).

2)      In light of her analysis, we should pay more attention to how writteness develops in ancient Judean literature within the broader contexts of writteness in Assyria, Babylonia, and Persia, along with possible influence in that regard.

3)      We must admit the shortcomings of our own “inherited intellectual frameworks to theorize the meaning of ancient text production within a given literary culture” (205).

4)      Textual awareness is not a progress but a phenomenon.


She notes two potential lines of inquiry in the conclusion. First, scholars should more thoroughly investigate how anthologies of biblical poetry frame the speech. For, within her study, this investigation enabled her to observe that Proverbs is framed as a literary medium for instruction, distinct from other ancient Near Eastern instructional texts. Second, the embodied voice of characters within the Hebrew Bible should be connected with other types of biblical speeches, such as deathbed testaments and mortuary inscriptions.

Overall, Vayntrub’s volume is helpful on multiple fronts. First, her overview of the history of biblical poetry, mashal, and other associated ideas effectively and clearly deconstruct the traditional framework for interpreting biblical poetry. In doing so, she is able to provide a clear alternative to approaching biblical texts on their own terms. In doing so, she emphasizes how a text is framed. Though not discussed thoroughly, the centrality of the frame of a text has implications for sub-fields within biblical studies. For example, concerning redaction criticism, she comments on Proverbs: while the authors may have redacted aspects of Proverbs in order to shape in a particular manner, “we may never be able to know with certainty one way or another. What we can do, instead, is theorize the aim of editorial and anthologizing activity” (198). Applied outside of Proverbs, it raises a concern in Pentateuchal criticism: perhaps the only things we can definitely theorize about is the editorial and anthologizing activity of the Pentateuch’s composition. Perhaps somebody will pick up this line of thought in the future.

Second, the attention she gives to the texts as literature is particularly instructive. Far too often, as she discusses thoroughly, scholars leverage biblical texts for social and cultural history without paying adequate attention to it as a literary text, with all its intricacies and constructive elements. What Vayntrub successful accomplishes is to identify how speech and orality function within literature itself, not attempting to claim that the literature is necessarily the same as the historical social situation, though she does recognize that it is reflective of it. Such an approach should be hearkened to by all biblical scholars, namely approaching the text in such a way that does not presume certain ideas about how the text relates to the world.

Third, her work is on par with Adele Berlin’s The Dynamic of Biblical Poetry and F.W. Dobbs-Allsopp’s On Biblical Poetry. Any studies on biblical poetry must deal with Vayntrub’s volume on account of what Vayntrub accomplishes in her work. If future studies on biblical poetry do not at least consult Beyond Orality, that should raise a red flag.

Although the book was splendid, a few comments are in order which may strengthen her overall argument. First, it would be helpful if she employed a more structured approach to describing texts in terms of their frames of reference. For example, Benjamin Harshav (Explorations in Poetics) offers a helpful analytical method for describing texts. His method is especially focused on describing how frames of reference function within literary texts. Had Vayntrub incorporated Harshav’s method for describing texts, her analyses would have been sharper on account of the more precise method and terminology for exegesis.

Second, though her description of the history of scholarship about the mashal is marvelous, one particular aspect could be pushed back chronologically. She notes early on that Lowth derived his notion of the Sublime in poetry, that is privileging theological content in poetry, from Longinus (1st century CE) and John Dennis (17th century CE). Though he may have primarily been influenced by Dennis and Longinus, it is worth noting that the privileged position of the Sublime in poetry reaches back to Plato. For although Plato views poetry as inherently untruthful, which she discusses with regard to medieval Spanish Jewish thinkers, Plato makes an exception for poetry praising deities: “We shall be angry with a poet who writes such [untruthful] lines about the gods and shall forbid their presentation in public. Nor can we permit teachers to make use of such poets in instructing the young if our guardians are to become god-fearing men, and indeed godlike, insofar as that is possible for me” (The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism 2019, 65). In light of Plato’s comments, the introduction to The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism suggests that “Socrates recommends that it,” namely poetry, “be banished from the ideal society, except perhaps for poetry that praises the gods and avoids representing them in an unseemly fashion” (2019, 7). In other words, the privileging of theological poetry over and against others stands within a text and author central to the canon of the Renaissance and reaching back into the middle of the 1st millennium BCE, namely Plato. As such, the privileging of the Sublime has deeper root in the Western intellectual tradition than she suggests.

Third, the issue of “wisdom” as a genre or literary category is problematic. She touches on this issue, deeming texts like Proverbs, Ahiqar, and various other ancient Near Eastern texts as instruction texts, not wisdom literature. She does, though, mention “assumptions guiding the study of wisdom literature” (75). Yet, as Will Kynes (2018) suggests, “wisdom literature” took its current form in the 19th century as an attempt by scholars to situate the Hebrew Bible’s texts within the broader discussions of philosophy and theology. In other words, what constitutes “wisdom literature” became characterized by 19th centuries philosophy. Although Kynes’ observations by no means delegitimize Vayntrub’s analyses or conclusions, it would be interesting to see how his observations may impact, for better or worse, Vayntrub’s conclusions. Perhaps in the future, assuming Kynes’ scholarship stands up to scrutiny, Vayntrub can work this into her ongoing scholarship.

Fourth, in terms of the organization of the book itself, the flow of the text is sometimes unclear. To be clear, the book is not poorly written; rather, it was simply sometimes difficult to follow the logic of the book. This comment, though, is less of a criticism and more something to be aware of when reading the volume.

Overall, even with these minor comments about the volume, Beyond Orality: Biblical Poetry on its Own Terms is necessary for any biblical scholars interested in poetry, literary cultures, or orality. Moreover, even folks outside of biblical studies will find Beyond Orality to be of interest on account of Vayntrub’s discussion of how the Great Divide has played out in biblical scholarship for the last 400 years. Though the volume is still expensive for individuals to purchase, it is, undoubtedly, necessary in the Religious Studies section at any serious university.

The Ethics of Paper Grading

A great blog post on grading papers and ethics.

The Craft of Teaching in the Academic Study of Religion

By Jonathan E. Soyars, Louisville Presbyterian Theological Seminary

I distinctly recall one of the most incisive pieces of critical paper feedback that I received in graduate school: “You wrote a lot of things, but you didn’t argue anything.” In the moment, reading such an evaluation of my work felt painful, maybe even a little unfair, as if the evaluator hadn’t read closely or slowly enough to absorb the intricacies of my argument. I comforted myself with a simple delusion: surely, they missed the forest for the trees! With the passing of time, though, I came to realize that their assessment was entirely accurate. Indeed, that paper had presented no forest. And, to make matters worse, it actually contained few trees.

As second-year postdoc, I now find myself grading student papers similar to my own way back when. Frankly, such grading occurs at a volume and pace that can sometimes…

View original post 1,773 more words

The Ethics of Office Hours — The Craft of Teaching in the Academic Study of Religion

By Jonathan E. Soyars A few weeks into my first full-time teaching a position, a student asked me a seemingly straightforward question shortly before I began my lecture: “Can I meet with you after class?” “Sure,” I responded, “let’s head upstairs to my office.” Then they said, “Thanks, something big has come up.” After I […]

via The Ethics of Office Hours — The Craft of Teaching in the Academic Study of Religion

Mesopotamian Monday: A Prayer by Assurbanipal to Assur

Within religious traditions, a primary aim and orientation is sometimes to secure a blessed life for descendants. In Catholic and Christian traditions, this can occur through infant baptism. In Deuteronomy 11:19 and 6:7, teaching children Torah is emphasized. And in any case, depending on social status, the performance and language which are perceived to have efficacy for blessing descendants can vary.

Naturally, Mesopotamian prayers by kings were also aimed at securing blessings for descendants. So, how did Mesopotamian’s performance rituals in order to attain and secure a blessed life for descendants? One way to think about this question is by looking at a prayer by the Assyrian king Assurbanipal [1].

For the majority of the prayer, Assurbanipal praises Assur [2]. For example, the speaker exalts Assur as the creator:

[Let me exalt] the sovereignty of [Assur] forever.
[Cap]able one, profound of wisdom, sage of the gods, princely one,
[Father], creator of what is in the heavens and earth, who formed the mountains,
[Assur], creator of the gods, begetter of goddess(es),
[Whose heart] is inscrutable, whose mind is ingenious,
Lofty [hero] whose name is feared… [3]

Evidently, the speaker attributes creation itself to Assur, views Assur as a warrior, and consider Assur to be the wisest of all beings (i.e. “sage of the gods”).

In the second half of the hymn, we read of a focus on the descendants of Assurbanipal:

Among descendants, in far-off days,
For future reigns, years without number,
May th(is) praise of Assure be not forgotten, may it keep one mindful of Esharra, a temple in Assur.
Let it be in (every) mouth, may it never cease to enlarge understanding,
So that, as to me, Assur will deliver into your hands sovereignty of land and people [4].

Essentially, the speaker Assurbanipal prays for the perpetual reign of his offspring on the basis of his prayers and role in supporting the temple at Assur. Note, though, that Assurbanipal explicitly says “your hands,” with reference to his descendant. Although it is unclear whether he used a 2nd person form because his descendant is present where the hymn is performed or he imagines his descendant as being present, it is clear that the prayer is explicitly focused on his particular offspring, not the general concept of “descendants.”

Based on Assurbanipal’s father, though, this is no surprise. In a famous text typically called Esarhaddon’s Succession Treaty, a covenant stipulates that all people within the Assyrian empire ruled by Esarhaddon commit to serving his son, Assurbanipal, as king when Esarhaddon dies [5]. Thus, the apple didn’t fall far from the tree. For just as Esarhaddon attempted to ensure that Assurbanipal maintain reign and sovereignty, so Assurbanipal attempted to ensure that his descendant maintain reign and sovereignty [6].

 Therefore, Assurbanipal’s prayer to Assur uses religious language, imagery, and activities as a perceived means of securing political sovereignty for his offspring. This echoes how Esarhaddon ensured that Assurbanipal maintain sovereignty. At base, it demonstrates how a particular social class, namely that of the royal family, attempts to secure a blessed life for descendants.


[1] As noted previously, individuals and groups with different social statuses will have different rituals and performances to attain blessed life for descendants. Now, the prayer which I am analyzing here was written for Assurbanipal. So, at most the text represents the ways in which a very small and wealthy social class sought to attain blessings for descendants. Therefore, we should be careful not to apply the paradigm and rituals represented within this hymn to every social group in ancient Mesopotamia, even if they do overlap is some places.

[2] In particular, he praises Assur as a primeval deity called Anshar. See Benjamin Foster, Before the Muses: An Anthology of Akkadian Literature (Bethesda: CDL Press, 2005), pp. 817n1.

[3] Translation by Foster (2005), pg. 817.

[4] Translation by Foster (2005), pg. 818. Italics added for clarity in the text.

[5] For an example available on, see Jacob Lauinger, “Esarhaddon’s Succession Treaty at Tell Tayinat: Text and Commentary,” in Journal of Cuneiform Studies, Vol. 65 (2012), pp. 87-123.

[6] Interestingly, perhaps Assurbanipal also looks backwards to his father, Esarhaddon in The Underworld Vision of an Assyrian Prince (SAA 03 032 r. 26). See Ramond C. van Leeuwen, “Cosmos, Temple, House: Building and Wisdom in Ancient Mesopotamia and Israel,” in From the Foundations of the Crenellations: Essays on Temple Building in the Ancient Near East and Hebrew Bible, eds. Mark J. Boda and Jamie Novotny (Münster: Ugarit-Verlag, 2010), pg. 414.  



Mesopotamian Monday: Coronation Prayer of Assurbanipal (2/2)

Part 2: When the Scripts are Enacted

*This week, Mesopotamian Monday is divided into two parts. In order to fully understand Part 2, click here to first read Part 1

When scripts are embodied and performed on stage, certain physical aspects, not present before, become apparent. In this case, what does it mean for the officiant to “make a blessing toward the ‘Censer Gate’, that is, toward Shamash”?

First, we must identify the location of these documents. Then, based on the location of the text, we can infer the location where the ritual was enacted. Finally, by looking at the architecture of the Shamash temple, we may be able to identify ways in which the physical space makes the Coronation Prayer more understandable.

The Coronation Prayer of Assurbanipal was discovered in Assur at the house of an incantation priest, just 300 meters south of the great Ziggurat [5]. In proximity of the Ziggurat were a variety of temples dedicated to other deities, Shamash’s temple being among them [6]. This suggests that the giving of a blessing towards Shamash, towards the ‘Censer Gate’, may have occurred within Shamash’s temple.

Now that we have identified the location in which this ritual may have been enacted, how can the ritual space can help us to get a better sense of the performance of the Coronation Prayer? For this, two points should be addressed. First, it is difficult to identify what the ‘Censer Gate’ exactly was. For sure, we know that it marked a particular gate within the temple [7]. Second, whereas the temple entrance during the Old Assyrian and Middle Assyrian periods was on the northwestern front, the cult direction during the Neo-Assyrian period is re-oriented towards the East [8].

This shift in the direction is notable because the sun rises in the East. Seeing that the sun rises in the East, this means the sun would have had maximum access to the temple. Moreover, recall that the officiant turns towards Shamash. Thus, on the basis of the (a) eastern oriented Shamash temple and (b) the officiant of the Coronation Prayer turning towards Shamash, I would like to suggest that the Coronation Prayer would have been accomplished in the morning, when the temple would have received maximum sunlight.

Receiving maximum sunlight is extremely significant. Throughout Mesopotamian literature and history, reference is made to prayers, rituals, and judgment occurring at sunrise [9]. So, Mary Shepperson suggests that “these temple gateways where judgements were given and oaths taken may be connected to solar phenomena. If the presence of light is understood as the presence of the god of justice, then it seems desirable that judgement should be performed in sunlight” [10].

Therefore, performance of the Coronation Prayer was not a simply a religious prayer. Instead, the Coronation Prayer should be understood as a ritual performed in a physical space, one which was performed before Shamash. This reading is important because it suggests that the Coronation Prayer has legal overtones [11]. The ritual moves an individual from one legal status to another social status by means of religious language and actions. And, as I have demonstrated, this can be observed by considering the special and ritual aspects of the text [12].

At base, then, this should challenge our understandings of the relationship between “legal” and “religion.” Especially in the 21st century, people enjoy speaking about the separation between Church and state, often times viewing them entirely distinct entities. I propose, though, that this distinction did not exist in ancient Mesopotamia. Instead, the king’s new legal, social and religious status was invoked through rituals employing religious language and legal symbolism.

So, is this really a ‘Coronation Prayer’ or is it a ‘Coronation Prayer Employed in a Legal Ritual’? I suggest the latter.

[5] Weidner (1939-1941), pg. 210. Moreover, Weidner (1939-1941), pg. 210n30, notes that temple documents were often stored this house during the late period of the Assyrian empire. So, see also Ernst F. Weidner, „Neue Bruchstücke des Berichtes über Sargons achten Feldyug“, in Archiv für Orientforschung Bd. 12 (1937-1939), pp. 144-148.


[7] CAD B Babu A, 1C 2´.

[8] Adrndt Haller and Walter Andrae, Dei Heiligtumer des Gottes Assur und der Sin-Shamash-Tempel in Assur (Berlin: Verlag Gebr, 1955), 82.

[9] Mary Shepperson, “The Ray of Shamash: Light in Mesopotamian Architecture and Legal Practice”, in Iraq Vol. 74 (2012), pp. 51-64.

[10] Shepperson (2012), pg. 58. She continues by noting that, when temples were oriented Southeast, they would maximize the duration of the morning sun. Perhaps this is why the Sin-Shamash temple is not exactly East; rather, it is oriented between 73 and 103 degrees. Furthermore, though Shepperson is focused on the Ur III period, the same principle appears to be at place in later Mesopotamian history and literature, as is evident by her citations of NB texts. For a more broad overview of the influence of the sun on ancient architecture, see Ezequiel Uson Guardiola, Joan Lluis Fumado Alsina, and Josep Vives Rego, “The Influence of Religious and Cosmological Beliefs on the Solar Architecture of the Ancient World”, in International Journal of Architectural Engineering Technology no. 1 (2014), pp. 3-11.

[11] Martin Arneth, „“Möge Shamash dich das Hirtenamt über die vier Weltgegenden einsetyen” Der „Krönungshymnus Assurbanipals“ (SAA III, 11) und die Solarisierung des neuassyrischen Königtums”, in  Zeitschrift für altorientalische und biblische Rechtsgeschichte no. 4-5 (1998-99), pp. 28-53, provides an excellent form-critical analysis of o. 1 – r. 2, along with some fascinating work showing how the form matches on king rituals from the MA period and before. This work highlights the centrality of Shamash. However, Arneth does not deal with the stage instructions found in r. 3. My analysis, then, contributes to Arneth’s argument for the centrality of Shamash and the prayer as being legal in nature.

[12] Mapping out the way that a text imagines itself to be enacted in a physical space, and how that changes our reading of the text, was inspired by Jeremy Smoak, “Inscribing Temple Space: The Ekron Dedication as Monumental Text,” in JNES 76 no. 2 (2017), pp. 319-336.

Mesopotamian Monday: Oracles to Esarhaddon

In any political situation, political figures look towards a variety of social figures, events, and things in order to find justification for their words and actions. For example, Fox News can serve as a means by which the words and actions of Donald Trump are justified and legitimatized to himself. Similarly, a survey can serve as the means by which the words of any political figure justifies his or her actions and words. In both cases, Fox News and surveys are both perceived as truthful and legitimate. Thus, political figures can employ them as a way to justify actions and words.

Yet, what is perceived as truthful or legitimate is often dependent on an individual’s social, political, cultural, and historical context. So, whereas Donald Trump perceives Fox News a legitimate source to justify himself, other would argue that Fox News is not a legitimate source. Therefore, by looking to Fox News, some would claim that Donald Trump does not justify or legitimize his actions.

Now, I am interested in exploring this issue in the ancient world. So, what did ancient Near Eastern kings perceive as truthful and legitimate sources? Moreover, what sort of evidence do we have which demonstrates their understanding?

Of all the Neo-Assyrian kings, Esarhaddon (680-669 BCE) stands out as a king who is understood as particularly superstitious [1]. His characterization as being superstitious is derived largely from records of cuneiform oracles written to Esarhaddon [2]. These oracles are, essentially, divine responses to Esarhaddon. More broadly, they are a form of divination with which Esarhaddon engaged. As will become more apparent when I discuss a particular oracle to Esarhaddon, it appears that divination and oracles were perceived by Esarhaddon to be truthful and legitimate sources. As such, they served to justify his words and actions.

In a particular oracle, Ishtar of Arbela communicates with Esarhaddon concerning his legitimacy. From the text, a few significant themes emerge. First, Ishtar is attributed with always supporting Esarhaddon, commenting “I have made firm your throne for long days and eternal years under the great heavens.” Second, Ishtar is attributed with ultimately killing the enemies of Esarhaddon. So, she says, “O Esarhaddon, rightful heir of Mullissu, with a raging dagger in my hands I will finish off your enemies” [3]. Third, and similar to the first two points, Ishtar claims she will protect Esarhaddon, being aware of his situation as king: “I will be your good shield. O Esarhaddon…. I am mindful of you.”

Of utmost importance, though, is that the speaker at the beginning of the text is Ishtar: “I am Ishtar of Arbela.” As an oracle, this phrase suggests that the words within it are those of Ishtar. Therefore, the text portrays Ishtar herself as claiming to communicate the words and, subsequently, to communicate her eternal support of Esarhaddon.

Practically, this text would have functioned on one level to legitimize the political rule of Esarhaddon. Importantly, oracles and divination as a tool of legitimizing political authority should not be understood as a means rooted is “irrational” thought, something often attributed to magic. Rather, Esarhaddon’s use of oracles and divination should be understood as a form of ancient science, albeit one which used magic [4]. This ancient science was, subsequently, employed for the purposes of state actions and legitimacy [5].

Notably, the use of divination is not unique to ancient Mesopotamia, although the particular texts and rituals which it employs are unique. Rather, the use of divination for political and bureaucratic purposes is common throughout societies in the ancient world and modern [6].

Moreover, this has implications for how we understand the 21st century: how do religious and political leader use religious texts as a means justifying actions and word? Although I wouldn’t say that the oracles employed by Esarhaddon are the same as the Hebrew Bible and New Testament, I do suggest that they are analogous [7]. Just as the oracles employed by Esarhaddon served to legitimize his political rule, the Hebrew Bible and New Testament sometimes serve to legitimize the words and actions of certain political figures.

In summary, all political figures employ authoritative ‘things’ to legitimize actions and words. The particular things employed are perceived to be legitimate and truthful by his- or herself. The ‘thing’ may not be perceived as legitimate by another individual or group, though. Therefore, by suspending our own notions of what constitutes truthful and legitimate things by which to justify oneself, we can begin to understand the logic of how other people think in different social groups across time and space.


[1] Although this is suggested by Benjamin Foster, Before the Muses (Bethesda: CDL Press, 2005), 814, consider also a perspective more recently perpetuated by Andrew Knapp, Royal Apologetic in the Ancient Near East (Atlanta: SBL Press, 2015), pg. 325n61: “Esarhaddon… likely had no shortage of enemies. Similarly, Esarhaddon’s notoriety for religious fanaticism may be overblown in recent scholarship; I adhere to Frame’s more cautious approach (“Esarhaddon should not necessarily be considered abnormally superstitious” [1992, 91]); see also Leichty 1995, 957.”

[2] Foster (2005), 814, notes that about fifty oracles are known. A selection of those oracles is available in English in SAA 9 (link).

[3] Foster (2005), 814n2, suggests that this may mean “that Esarhaddon is ineffective as a warrior without Ishtar’s assistance.”

[4] See Francesca Rochberg, “Empiricism in Babylonian Omen Texts and the Classification of Mesopotamian Divination as Science,” in JAOS Vol. 119, No. 4 (1999), pp. 559-569; David Brown, “Astral Divination in the Context of Mesopotamian Divination, Medicine, Religion, Magic, Society, and Scholarship,” in East Asian Sciences, Technology, and Medicine No. 25 (2006), pp. 69-126. U. Jeyes, “Divination as a Science in Ancient Mesopotamia”, Jaarbericht Ex Oriente Lux, vol. 32 (1991), pp. 23-41. For a similar perspective concerning southern Africa, see Wim Van Binsbergen, “Four-Tablet Divination as Trans-Regional Medical Technology in Southern Africa,” in Journal of Religion in Africa, Vol. 25, Fasc. 2 (1995), pp. 114-140.

[5] See the various contributions to Alan Lenzi and Jonathan Stokl (eds.), Divination, Politics, and Ancient Near Eastern Empires (Atlanta: SBL Press, 2014).

[6] See, for example, Adam Smith and Jefferey Leon, “Divination and Sovereignty: The Late Bronze Age Shrines at Gegharot, Armenia,” in American Journal of Archaeology, Vol. 118, No. 4 (2014), pp. 549-563; Carol J. King, “Plutarch, Alexander, and Dream Divination,” in Illinois Classical Studies, No. 38 (2013), pp. 81-111; Rowan K. Flad, “Divination and Power: A Multiregional View of the Development of Oracle Bone Divination in Early China,” in Current Anthropology, Vol. 49, No. 3 (2008), pp. 403-437.

[7] Although much work has been done on how the Bible was later used as a magical text, see the following examples: Joseph Angel, “The Use of the Hebrew Bible in Early Jewish Magic,” in Religion Compass 3/5 (2009), pp. 785-798 and this link for a view article on ancient amulets. Now, although beyond the scope of this post, I tentatively suggest that, in some cases, the Bible is used as a form of divination. This discussion, though, will have to wait for another day.


















Weekly Digest (11/24/17)

Masoretic Texts and Ancient Texts Close to MT  (LINK)

Reading and Writing in the Dark at Khirbet el-Qom: The Literacies of Ancient Subterranean Judah by Alice Mandell and Jeremy Smoak (LINK)

The Cult of the Bronze Serpents in Ancient Canaan and Israel by Maciej Munnich (LINK)

“On ‘Exegetical Function’ in Rewritten Scripture: Inner-Biblical Exegesis and the Abram/Ravens Narrative in Jubilees” by David Teeter (LINK)

Weekly Digest (November 3rd, 2017)

Upcoming Article on Psalm 29, Psalm 96, and Chronicles (LINK)
Johannes Schnocks“Singet für JHWH, ganze Erde” (Ps 96:1b//1Chr 16:23). Psalm 96 im Kontext des Psalmenbuchs und der Chronik, in Psalmen und Chronik (Mohr Siebeck, 2018).

Forthcoming Book on Jesus in the Talmud by Peter Schafer (LINK)

“Published in German. This is a thorough investigation of the passages about Jesus in the rabbinic literature, mainly in the Babylonian Talmud. In his lucid and accessible book, Peter Schäfer examines how the rabbis read and used the New Testament to assert Judaism’s superiority over Christianity. The Talmudic texts focus on the virgin birth of Jesus, his behavior as a bad and frivolous disciple, his teachings, the healing capacities Jesus and his disciples possessed, the execution of Jesus and his disciples, and finally his punishment forever in hell. The center of this critique of Jesus and his fate was Babylonia under Sassanian rule, quite in contrast to Palestinian Judaism, which was increasingly threatened by the dominant power of Christianity.”

Historical and Theological Lexicon of the Septuagint (LINK)

Review of The Ancient Near East in the Nineteenth Century: Appreciations and Appropriations: III. Fantasy and Alternative Histories (LINK)