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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Review: Kings of Israel (board game)

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

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

Game Play

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

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

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

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

The Good

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

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

The Confusing

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

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

The Concerning

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

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

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

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

Final Thoughts

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

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

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

 

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.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mesopotamian Commentaries

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

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

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

Authoritative Texts

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

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

General Notes

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

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

Conclusion

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

 

 

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

Religion in The First Avenger: Magic, Canon, and Cosmos (Part One)

Since 2009, Disney has earned roughly $18.2 billion on the Marvel Cinematic University (MCU). All of the events in the MCU, introducing the heroes, villains, and objects, culminated with Avengers: Endgame. For various reasons, the MCU offers some interesting parallels for understanding various elements of religion. So, over the next 20 weeks, I will be watching the MCU films in chronological order, thinking about how they can shed light an religious studies topics.

This week, I watched Captain America: The First Avenger (TFA). Though TFA is chronologically prior to Iron Man, it was released in 2011, after Iron Man (2008), The Incredible Hulk (2008), Iron Man 2 (2010), and Thor (2011). The film is about Steve Rodgers, who volunteers for a special physical enhancement test in the US Army. After a successful test and due to unseen circumstances, Captain America, who is Steve Rodgers, saves the world from a Nazi group which split off from Nazi Germany and nearly destroyed the entire East Coast with the Tesseract. Red Skull the villain, sees himself as harnessing the power of the gods through science. At the end of the film, Captain America stops Red Skull; however, Captain America crash lands in Greenland. The film ends by showing how Captain America was buried in ice for 70 years, discovered in time to become part of the Avengers team.

In what follows, I will lay out of few general observations about TFA and issues in religious studies. Many of these thoughts are undeveloped and will receive more thorough treatment as I re-watch all of the MCU Phase One films.

First, TFA represents a strained relationship between science and magic/religion. Red Skull is mocked by his peers during the beginning of the film for seeking to find the Tesseract in order to power his weapons. He comments at one point: “What others see as superstition, you and I see as science.” That is to say, there is recognition of the boundaries between science and magic/religion. In finding and utilizing the Tesseract, the film effectively illuminates how the boundaries between “religion” or “magic” and “science” are sometimes more porous than we realize. For example, turning towards Mesopotamia, is the Maqlû rituals, anti-witchcraft rituals, magic, religious, or scientific? The practitioner uses various objects as material technology to push against the witch’s  possession of victim. Though most would not categorize this as scientific, the ritual was perceived, in some respects, as harnessing the power of the deity. Thus, though they are not the same, Red Skull’s use of the Tesseract and a practitioner’s use of the anti-witchcraft rituals are an interesting parallel in terms of the relationship between magic, religion, and science.

hugo_weaving_as_red_skull

Second, issues of canonization arise in the MCU. After all, the films were not made in chronological order. This emerges most clearly with Howard Stark’s character, who is the father of Tony Stark/Iron Man. TFA introduces Howard Stark as a wealthy arms dealer for the US Army. If we watch the movies in chronological order with no background knowledge from the comics, his character is not significant; however, if we watch the movies based on release-date order, Howard Stark becomes more significant. Such an issue is equally important in the Hebrew Bible: which book was composed first and which book is imagined to be chronologically first? Moreover, should one read the Hebrew Bible in the Jewish canonical order, or should they read it based on composition date? For, if you don’t read the texts based on composition date, certain elements which occur chronologically earlier, though later in terms of composition, may be unclear. Such issues are relevant for both Biblical Studies and the MCU because they point to an even more central practice: what are the reading/watching practices for audiences? Though I have no answer, it is worth comparing more in the future.

Third, Red Skull finds the Tesseract in sculptured mural of Yggdrasil:

“Yggdrasill, the world tree, is an energy field that supports and connects the Nine Worlds. It is represented as a tree the roots and branches of the tree each connect a different realm… and the earthly realm of Midgard through which all the connections pass.” – (Source)

In other words, the location of the Tesseract implies that it has a connection with the cosmic Yggdrasill, a mythical tree from Norse cosmology and mythology. Put another way, an object of power (Teseract) was found amidst a religious symbol of a cosmic power (Yggdrasill). The significance of Red Skull’s finding the Tesseract would have been notably less were it not associated with a cosmic power. That is to say, the way in which one interacts with their material environment can be understood different based on the associations and links. For example, when a Mesopotamian king captured an enemy temple, the temple was not simply a building for gods; rather, it was a microcosm of the macrocosm, of the universe. So, the significance of capturing temples was heightened through associating temples with a greater cosmic significance. Thus, while Red Skull’s finding the Tesseract is distinct from a Mesopotamian king capturing a temple, there is a similar pattern in both: the material object is associated with a cosmic power in order to make more significant the material item.

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.

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Chapter Summaries

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

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

Chapter 3 briefly introduces Part 2.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Philosophical Friday: Giovanni Boccaccio and the Obscurity of Poetry

Giovanni Boccaccio (1313-1375) was an Italian scholar, raised in Florence. He wrote a wide variety of works: allegorical poems, prose tales, romances, and more. Among Boccaccio’s most well-known books is Genealogy of the Gentile Gods, “a mythological sourceboook that would introduce readers to the study of the ancient poets” [1]. One goal of Genealogy of the Gentile Gods was to provide an argument in favor of poetry as a means for locating truth, setting himself apart from Plato who saw poetry as opposed to truth. Instead, poetry is understood as being from “the bosom of God.”

I am interested, though, in how Boccaccio deals with the problem of poetic obscurity and how Boccaccio’s perspective builds off of and develops older traditions. Initially, Boccaccio frames his argument in terms of a caviller, a person that raises petty quibbles, who objects “that poetry is often obscure, and that poets are to blame for it, since their end is to make an incomprehensible statement appear to be wrought withe exquisite artistry” [2].

In response, Boccaccio offers a few example of texts and writers who are equally obscure but not criticized. First, he makes reference to the philosophers. He offers a question: “do they”, namely philosophers, “always find their close reasoning as simple and clear as they say an oration should be? If they say yes, they lie; for the works of Plato and Aristotle… abound in difficulties…” [3]. In short, philosophical writings are unclear. Second, Boccaccio notes that even the Holy Writ is obscure sometimes. Therefore, any condemnation of poetry on account of obscurity results in the blaspheming of the Holy Ghost. After all, even Augustine comments that certain passages of Isaiah are unclear to him.

On this basis, Boccaccio argues that “no one can believe that poets invidiously veil the truth with fiction,” but they rather veil truth “to make truths which would otherwise cheapen by exposure the object of strong intellectual effort and various interpretation” [4]. In other words, the Holy Writ and non-Holy Writ texts alike veil truth as a means of preventing it from becoming worthless and too common. Such an explanation is remarkably similar to how Augustine explains the obscurity of the Holy Writ: “It is a wonderful and beneficial thing that the Holy Spirit organized the holy scripture so as to satisfy hunger by means of its plainer passages and remove boredom by means of its obscurer ones” [5]. In other words, the obscurity in the Holy Writ is intentional.

While Boccaccio and Augustine both discuss the problem of obscurity and poetry, the reason and way they employ it is distinct. Augustine refers to the obscurity of scripture and its divine cause in order to provide a theological explanation for misunderstood and obscure biblical texts. In other words, his formulation in On Christian Teaching is intended to deal with a theological problem. Although Boccaccio draws from Augustine, inasmuch as he notes the theological problem of viewing obscure texts like the Holy Writ as being impractical, Boccaccio takes Augustine’s framework and applies it to non-biblical material. So, whereas Augustine primarily considers obscurity as reasonable within the Holy Writ, Boccaccio expands this to include non-Holy Writ.

In doing so, Boccaccio creates a divide between that which is Holy Writ and that which is not Holy Writ. By distinguishing between a special, select group of texts and all others, Boccaccio implies a distinction akin to the distinction between secular and religious. In his situation, the Holy Writ is a religious text, whereas all other texts are secular texts.

Boccaccio’s distinction is worth emphasizing because it illumines how the foundations of poetry as an academic object of study are themselves historically defined and understood as that which is not Holy Writ. Such a genealogy is worth examining further.

[1] The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism, 201.

[2] The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism, 206.

[3] The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism, 206-207.

[4] The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism, 208.

[5] The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism168.