Review of “The Exegetical Terminology of Akkadian Commentaries” by Uri Gabbay

Uri Gabbay. The Exegetical Terminology of Akkadian Commentaries. In Culture and History of the Ancient Near East, Vol. 82. Leiden: Brill, 2016.

Uri Gabbay is a Senior Lecturer in Department of Archaeology/Ancient Near East and School of Philosophy and Religions at Hebrew University. Since 2009, much of his work has been in the area of Akkadian commentaries. This volume, though, is the first attempt to write a comprehensive description of the terminology used in Akkadian commentaries and how they function.

Like any volume, the Introduction offers a brief introduction to what Mesopotamian commentaries are and how to approach them, for which he suggests three steps: identify the base text (i.e. subject of the commentary), identify motivations behind comments (i.e. textual difficulties), and identify the technical terminology. Gabbay focuses on the third step, which enables one to better understand the hermeneutical process of Akkadian commentators. Subsequently, he offers a brief discussion of important terms: canonical (i.e. attributed to divine authority), hermeneutical technique versus hermeneutical motivation (i.e. methods employed versus solving problems in the base text), and exegetical terminology (i.e. reasoning and exegetical terminology employed in the comment).

One of the greatest strengths of the Introduction is the framing of commentaries not as speculation or expansion; rather, commentaries “respond to a problem in the base text,” both minor lemma problems and more extensive context problems (9). In other words, although signs are polysemous, polysemy is primarily employed to make a text more coherent.

One point of possible contention, though, is Gabbay’s employment of the category “canon,” which he essentially defines as a text which has “an interpretive and study tradition” (4). While “canon” can be productive in some cases, particularly for later commentaries, it seems reasonable to assume that the status of a “canon” would have functioned with various nuances, depending on the period and region. To draw from Biblical Studies, the Hebrew Bible was technically a “Canon” in the 5th century BCE (compilation with subsequent expansion in the DSS and Second Temple Period literature), 2nd century BCE (list of the “official” books in Sirach), and 2nd century CE (Rabbinic period). In each period of the Hebrew Bible’s canonicity, though, “Canon” had very different valencies. By analogy, one would expect the “canonical” texts of Mesopotamia to have similar valencies throughout various periods (Neo-Assyrian, Late Babylonian, etc.). Therefore, “Canon” may be used to describe the base text of commentaries; however, nuances of particular periods must be considered. For focus on these nuances may impact how we interpret the exegetical terminology and comments without commentary texts.

Furthermore, Gabbay’s categorizations of “Canon,” terms like coherence, discussion of hermeneutics, etc., would have been strengthened by including matters of literary theory. By not considering the relationship between his claims and literary theory, a wide gap is left in his introductory material.

Chapter One examines exegetical terminology reflective of the Sitz im Leben. Such terminology, suggests Gabbay, points to a scribal context wherein oral lessons were written by students, to be later combined with written sources. Many exegetical terms employed in oral lessons and student responses reflect the Sitz im Leben as a learning environment lead by the teacher-scholar. The terminology itself is divided amongst four sections: Sitz im Leben of study process, learning environment (i.e. the lesson), 2nd person references, and Sitz im Leben of commentary compilation. Together, his description of terminology related to the Sitz im Leben is helpful for reconstructing a hypothetical learning environment.

Problematic is that Gabbay suggests a hypothetical learning environment on the basis of terminology alone. As he notes later, though, Babylonian, Late Babylonian, late Achemenid and early Hellenistic, and Neo-Assyrian exegetical terminology function similarly in various contexts, different densities of terminology are present in their respect periods and geographic regions (269-274). Therefore, Gabbay’s hypothetical learning environment is an oversimplified model. A nuanced model based on (a) terminology and (b) region/period would have been more precise and useful for future historical reconstructions.

Chapter Two presents exegetical terminology which addresses the meaning individual words and phrases via definition. Such definitions are either equations or descriptions. Gabbay asserts that equations are reflective of the lexical genre, whereas descriptions are reflective of lexical texts and the descriptive genre in texts like abnu šikinšu and šammu šikinšu. Overall, the presentation is helpful, especially for future studies on Akkadian commentaries and hermeneutical methods.

There is, though, one issue. Gabbay’s description of the Glossenkeil is over simplified. He claims in Chapter One that “textual variants are often indicated by Glossenkeil” (75). Then, in Chapter Two, he suggests two interpretations of the Glossenkeil: it separates two equated words or “corresponds to a verbal formula that was pronounced during lessons to indicate the relationship between the terms in a lexical equation” (85). Although convenient for his overall focus on exegetical terminology, the claim is problematic, inasmuch as it fails to provide any evidence or argument for his understanding of how a Glossenkeil functions within the texts. It may be preferable to interpret the Glossenkeil as a disjunctive marker. For, it can function syntactically in such a variety of manners that limiting the Glossenkeil to a single function is may be problematic. For example, he discusses a commentary on Sagig, wherein part of the text reads: “A = water, GUR = return; thirdly: (agurru, “baked brick,” refers to) a pregnant woman” (pp. 182-183;  [A : me-e] : GUR : ta-a-ra šal-šiš MUNUS.PEŠ4). In the commentary of Sagig, there is a Glossenkeil between A and , and GUR and târa. There is also a Glossenkeil between and GUR, though. While it may function to mark some sort of relationship between A: and GUR:târa, it is equally plausible that it simply functions as a disjunctive marker, distinguishing between the two lexical equivalences. This reading is preferable simply due to the ambiguity of Glossenkeilen. For, this reading takes into account the ambiguity of the Glossenkeil and forces one to carefully consider the function of it in its respective context.

Having described terminology which defines individual words and phrases, Chapter Three addresses terminology of contextualization terminology: “a process of discovering or constructing a context that will allow the interpreter to make sense of a lemma that is difficult to understand in isolation or in its immediate context, or to harmonize contradictory texts” (127). Such interpretation takes three forms: specification (clarification o the base text), changing the literal meaning of a lemma, and reasoning (“the process of identifying premises and drawing conclusions” (127)). Terminology employed, then, are primarily “prepositions and conjunctions that indicate the logical relationships between various signifiers” (128). Essentially, Gabbay categorizes the terminology which serves to makes sense of the base text by re-framing it.

As with Chapter Two, Gabbay’s cataloguing of exegetical terminology will be helpful for other studies. And considering the ambiguity of Akkadian commentary series, it would not be particularly surprising to find divergent interpretations of texts and how terminology functions within the texts. Even so, his arrangement is helpful nonetheless.

Although more of a cursory concern, there is an absence to any modern literary theory. Discussion this subject may be helpful in arranging the exegetical terminology and its uses. For example, while discussing the term libbū with textual citations, he references a Sagig commentary, wherein the commentator employs an omen from Šumma-ālu. In doing so, Gabbay suggests that the commentator reinterprets asirtu (concubine) in terms of esēru (to confine), inasmuch as the commentator claims asirtu actually refers the confining of a patient in his bed (p. 133). This method of interpretation is reflective of intertextuality. Closer attention to valencies of intertextuality (i.e. awareness of how a scholar cites material for interpretation) may have enabled Gabbay to analyze exegetical terminology in such a way that allowed one to more clearly see how various scribes themselves conceptualized authoritative texts and their relationship to them.

Chapter Four presents techniques and terminology which reflect awareness of “the nature and character of the text….  The action of interpretation itself and the commentator himself” (169). It is not entirely clear, though, how Gabbay decided what belonged to this category and what did not.

For example, he claims that the terminology kakku sakku (“sealed and shut”) in an explanatory text indicates a relationship between the comb/mirror of a goddess and the Corpse star. Said relationship is supposedly based on a “general ancient scholarly tradition” (179; 180n48). If this is the case, perhaps the terminology kakku sakku should fall under its own category. For, the relationship between elements A and B is suggested to be a general scholarly tradition. So, employing of kakku sakku is more of a reference to previous scholarly tradition than simply a comment on the nature or character of said text. If this is the case, Gabbay should work to expand his descriptive categories in the future, so that phrases like kakku sakku may be more adequately presented.

Chapter Five presents the variety of phrase with the verb qabû which function hermeneutically. Through this description, he suggests that the Mesopotamian worldview understood divine utterances to be present in the form of texts or “canon.” In a sense, this was the “divine word,” began commenting upon in the NA period.

Although the notion of a Mesopotamian “logos” is intriguing and may be a good course of research for future scholars, Gabbay’s treatment of the topic is not substantiated well. First, having focused primarily on qabû in Akkadian commentaries, briefly touching on its use outside of commentaries, any claim for a Mesopotamian “logos” must be substantiated by a systematic analysis of qabû in all Mesopotamian literature. Second, in attempting to paint a broad brushstroke of what constitutes a Mesopotamian “logos,” he does not distinguish between time period and region. As previously mentioned, further analysis in these regards would benefit all of his conclusions.

Finally, the Conclusion reflects on why his analyses matter. First, he suggests that the exegetical terminology points to a strong culture of scholasticism amongst scribes. Second, he carefully notes that, while exegetical terminology illustrate the hermeneutical process, the hermeneutical process may still occur within the exegetical terminology. Thus, Gabbay’s outline of exegetical terminology, and therefore the hermeneutical process, will be helpful for interpreting texts, especially commentaries, inasmuch we now have a better sense of a Mesopotamian hermeneutical framework. Finally, he briefly reflects on the spread of exegetical terminology. In doing so, he provides a summary of how Akkadian exegetical terminology may have developed.

Although intriguing, such analysis of the spread of exegetical terminology via geography, time period, and colophon should have played a bigger part in Gabbay’s analysis. For example, rather than dividing between the chapters as he did, it may have been more productive to categorize terminology by region and time period, subsequently considering the extent to which they informed each other or overlap.

Overall, The Exegetical Terminology of Akkadian Commentaries is a helpful volume for scholars, particularly those interested in Akkadian commentaries. And while he does offer thorough coverage of Akkadian exegetical terminology, this reviewer is left wondering if more substantive conclusions may have been achieved by arranging terminology on the basis of region, period, and attentiveness to intertextuality. Even so, there is no doubt that this will be a valuable volume for the future, especially as studies on Akkadian commentaries are on the rise. For, it also includes two concise and useful appendices on exegetical terminology in divinatory literature and early Hebrew literature.

*The publisher provided a review copy in exchange for my honest opinion.