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”).


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.

Mesopotamian Mondays: Deities Who Forget

In the ancient world, deities were perceived as sometimes forgetting about humans, their servant subjects. Such is true for ancient Judean religion(s) (i.e. the Hebrew Bible) and Mesopotamian religion(s). So, in what follows, I will briefly explore one method by which Assurbanipal reminded deities to pay attention. This is followed by a couple of examples demonstrating how certain actions and moments in the Hebrew Bible are means by which the Israelites reminded the deity to pay attention.

During the reign of Assurbanipal (c.  668-627 BCE), the Assyrian king collected a massive amount of Akkadian (cuneiform) texts from across Mesopotamia. He then compiled these texts into a single location, which is the modern archaeological site of Kouyunjik, ancient Nineveh. Many of these cuneiform tablets are explicitly noted as being compiled for the palace of Assurbanipal. In other words, Assurbanipal of Assyria was responsible for creating a treasure trove of literary, magical, ritual, and other types of cuneiform texts.

His gathering of these texts served to point to Assurbanipal’s wisdom. In doing so, he hoped that this would also cause deities to look favorably upon his rule, life, kingship, and well-being. In fact, most of these texts contain statements at the end of the tablets about the scribe and writing process. This is more commonly called a colophon. In a few of these colophon’s, the speaker of the text is Assurbanipal himself! So, at the end of a medical texts, the colophon begins with: “I, Assurbanipal, king of the universe, king of Assyria, on whom Nabu and Tashmetu have bestowed vast intelligence… I wrote down on tablets Nabu’s wisdom, the impressing of each and every cuneiform sign, and I checked and collated them” [1]. Assurbanipal goes on to plead for well-being in the present and future.

In this prayer-colophon, the tablet serves as a reminder to the deity: “When this work is deposited in your house and placed in your presence, look upon it and remember me with favor!” [2].  Essentially, the material on which Assurbanipal claims to have written serves as a physical reminder to the deity to pay attention! Thus, by amassing a massive number of texts, many of which explicitly reference being in the Palace of Assurbanipal, his accumulation of texts is practical on two planes. First, it highlights his role as a sage par excellence. Second, the accumulation physically serves as a reminder to the deities, especially the writing deity Nabu, to pay attention to Assurbanipal.

A similar sentiment is expressed in the Hebrew Bible. Throughout the Pentateuch, more commonly referred to as the Torah, people do certain actions which remind Yahweh to pay attention to them. Likewise, Yahweh requires Israelites to perform certain actions so that he doesn’t forget things. For example, Jeremy Schipper and Jeffrey Stackert illustrate how circumcision functions as a reminder to Yahweh: “by prescribing a physical “blemish” for all Israelite males, God turns an irritant into an effective reminder for himself so that he might always bless his people with fertility” [3].

Additionally, Yahweh remembers his covenant with the Patriarchs only after he hears the groans of the Israel: “And Yahweh hear their groanings, such that God remember his covenant with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. God saw the sons of Israel and God took notice” (Exodus 2:24-25; my translation). In other words, Yahweh is not portrayed as having divine omnipotence, knowing and remember everything happening in the world; rather, he is portrayed as being a forgetful deity, inasmuch as he forgets about the Israelites and his covenant. It is only sound, a loud cry, which reminds Yahweh of his covenant. In short, this demonstrates how the notion of needing deities to pay attention is a common problem in the ancient Near East; however, different time periods, scribes, and cultures deal with the issue in different ways [4].


[1] Benjamin Foster, Before the Muses (Bethesda: CDL Press, 2005), 831.

[2] Before the Muses, 831.

[3] Jeremy Schipper and Jeffrey Stackert, “Blemishes, Camouflage, and Sanctuary Service: The Priestly Deity and His Attendants,” in Hebrew Bible and Ancient Israel 4 Vol. 2 (2013), 477-478.

[4] To be clear, I am not claiming that these are the same or that one influenced the other. Rather, I am suggesting that this is simply part of the broader ancient theological environment.

Magic in the Anti-Witchcraft Rituals

One the topics I am exploring extensively right now is the topic of magic. It is a hotly debated topic, with a wealth of data to draw from an develop our understanding of it. So, I am currently reading one of the most well known “magic” texts from the ancient world, namely the anti-witchcraft ritual. It is more commonly referred to as Maqlu.

What I find interesting, though, is the way that language is employed in the text. Near the beginning of the text, we read the following:

I have made an image of my witch and my warlock

Of the one who made my image and the one who performs (witchcraft) against me.

(Tablet 1, Lines 15-16)

What I find interesting in these lines is the parallelism at play. In line 15, a G Preterite 1CS form describes the patients as “making” an image of the witch and warlock. Here, the verb epēšu is used in relation to the creating an image of the respective witches.

In line 16, the verbal form switchs from a preterite to two participial forms from the root epēšu. On each form is a 1CS possessive suffix. What is not identified is an object concerning what is epēšu-ed in line 16. Because line 15 uses a finite form of the verb in relation to creating a image, this notion appears to carry over from line 15 into line 16.

Moreover, in line 16, the participial forms function as substantivized participles, denoting an agent noun (cf. Huehnergard 20.1). So, the implication is that the participles communicate “the one made my image,” albeit without explicitly stating “image.”

Now, what is particularly interesting about this is that the patient performs the same basic activity which is performed by the witch and warlock. This is evident because of the parallelism in the lines. What this points towards, then, is something well-developed in scholarship: “magic” is problematic category for describing certain phenomenon because it historically carries an negative connotation. In reality, when we look at texts like Maqlu, the afflicted patient appears to be performing rituals similar to that of the “witches” themselves, or at least employing the same material means for rituals.

Therefore, while “magic” is a necessary category for interpreting texts, people, events, and things in history, we must always be conscious of what we mean by “magic.” Do we assume certain things about magic, which ultimately causes us to misrepresent the texts or cultures on hand? So, by being attentive to what we mean when we say “magic,” we can have (a) a better appreciation for other cultures and societies and (b) a more precise and accurate understanding of other cultures and societies.

Ancient Israel, Literature, and Context

One reason that I find ancient Israel, along with its literature and ancient context, Alma Memeto be so fascinating is its place historically. During the periods in which ancient Israelite religion and culture developed, it was usually under a foreign power, or at least the threat of a foreign power, namely Egyptian, Mesopotamian, Persian, or Roman power(s). Even when they operated autonomously, the shadows of great empires recognized their value and sought to rule the Judean region. It is in these contexts that the majority of literature and religious ideas were formed.

In other words, ancient Israel developed in constant tension. They never had the opportunity to be settled, as did Egypt and Mesopotamia, both of which were protected by large geographical boundaries and enabled to grow extensively due to their available resources. Ancient Israel, while it did have some beneficial geographical boundaries, was not enabled to grow extensively due to their lack of available resources. This lack of resources resulted in a culture rooted in constant tension. I suspect that it was the very tension that allowed ancient Israel to thrive and always maintain presence and life, even in exile.

Tensions are a huge aspect of what drives my interest in the Hebrew Bible, Pseudepigrapha, and other ancient literature. To this day humans feels tensions in their contexts when they don’t live a privileged lifestyle. And to observe and take note of how, historically speaking, people have dealt with those tensions is beautiful and awe-inspiring. Perhaps Tennessee Williams’ character Alma said it best: “To me, well, that is the secret, the principle back of existence, the everlasting struggle and aspiration for more than our human limits have placed in our reach” (From Summer in Smoke by Tennessee Williams).


“In the Wake of the Goddesses” by Tikva Frymer-Kensky

In In the Wake of the Goddesses, Tikva Frymer-Kensky (1943-2006) explores the role of the goddess and its development through the ancient near east. She holistically approaches the whole of the ancient near east with a focus on the societal views of women based on the mythological expressions relating to women and the role they play in the mythologies. Following this discussion, she approaches the Hebrew Bible’s portrayal of the divine when the goddess is absent, covering the issues of female portrayal in regard to humans and God. Finally, she concludes with discussion of how sexuality and gender is portrayed within the Bible.

Frymer-Kensky, in approaching the subject, is holistic in the sense that she doesn’t purely focus on the mythological accounts. She recognizes that the polytheistic tendencies of ancient Israel’s predecessors paint a backdrop of ancient Israel’s monotheism which, in many aspects, draw out its unique character among the nations. Her critical approach, while challenging many popular stances on the Hebrew Bible, are effective in allowing her to write a book which speaks to any audience, Jewish, Christian, or Muslim. While there is a theological skew towards Judaism, her approach does not demand those results. In a sense, she takes a secular approach to biblical studies with a theological aim, not a theological approach with a theological aims (See Ron Simkins’ Biblical Studies as a Secular Discipline: The Role of Faith and Theology).

In conclusion, Frymer-Kensky’s exploration of goddesses in regard to ancient Mesopotamia and ancient Israel is an excellent choice for any person seeking to understand the influence of Mesopotamian culture and literature on the development of ancient Israel. Except, rather than merely presenting dry information, it is a living text that tells a story, thus making it easy to read. While easy to read, that does not take away from the critical approach and factual arguments of Tivka Frymer-Kensky. Her scholarship sheds light on why the University of Chicago dedicated a volume of Gorgias Precis Portfolios to Tikva Frymer-Kensky, titled “In the Wake of Tikva Frymer-Kensky”.

Click here to purchase In the Wake of Goddesses: Women, Culture, and the Biblical Transformation of Pagan Myth