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

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

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

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 Though many texts remain unpublished, enough publications indicate two groups: Group A and Group B. Texts in Group A “seems more like a working archive, with many texts which are the result of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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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




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

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

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