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.

“Jesus and Purity Halakhah” by Thomas Kazen

Thomas Kazen’s Jesus and Purity Halakhah explores the historical Jesus and how he related to the purity halakhah of his day. He thoroughly considers multiple approaches to the issues and utilizes a wide variety of primary sources. Divided into four parts, Jesus and Purity Halakhah begins with a demonstration of the necessity of his study and explanation of his historical approach. His brief, but detailed, summary of the history of the quest for the historical Jesus, especially as it relates to purity, provides a solid framework by which his arguments are shaped. By the end of part I, it is evident that his goal is to present a “conscious reconstruction of how Jesus related to concepts of impurity” (41), not necessarily how Markan or Lukan tradition understood Jesus.

Part II identifies Jesus’ adversaries, a basic introduction to that conflict, and the legal texts which assist in the study. After demonstrating his framework through a Sabbath case study, he repeats his approach through a case study of Mark 7 and Jesus’ hand-washing. Such case studies permit him to present the basic nature of the Second Temple Period: purity was a serious issue and debate within the period. Following, he identifies the major elements of defilement through contact: skin disease, bodily discharges, and the corpse. His discussion of each of these elements strengthen his argument with their thorough nature. Based on these categories, Kazen concludes that Jesus was indifferent to impurity halakhah of his day.

He then proceeds to explore, in Part III, three explanatory models for why Jesus was so indifferent to purity: morality, diversity, and demonic threat. For each model he clearly demonstrates how each contributes to a more holistic picture of Jesus’ character. Finally, in Part IV, he concludes and synthesizes his results into a succinct explanation of Jesus’ seemingly indifferent attitude to purity halakah, even briefly discussing practical applications for the Church.

Above all else, Kazen’s use of multiple sources was admirable. While he does utilize any and every possible source, he clearly explains how each fits into his explanatory model or discussion. In doing so, he is clear as to how certain texts, such as the Qumran scrolls, may or may not be significant. Such a clear approach permits the reader to more easily approach the text and yield new observations about the 2nd Temple Period and Jesus’ purity halakhah. Additionally, his writing style is quite story like. Although he is  not necessarily telling a story, his style often feels like a story due to the nature of it. Kazen even notes that the book builds based on previously explicated information. And he expects the reader to grasp a point explained from 100 pages earlier. Though it may, for some, be difficult, I found it to increase the readability as I knew what sort of writing to expect.

In conclusion, Kazen presents a fantastic and convincing argument for a proper view of Jesus’ historical nature and how he regarded purity halakhah. His work avoids strong bias towards theological endeavors and effectively focuses into the historical issues surrounding Jesus. Any desire for discussion, research, or general information regarding Jesus as he relates to purity halakhah of the first century must consider Jesus and Purity Halakhah to be their first secondary source.

Click here to purchase Jesus and Purity Halakhah by Thomas Kazen