Review: “Knowledge and Rhetoric in Medical Commentary: Ancient Mesopotamian Commentaries on a Handbook of Medical Diagnosis (Sa-gig)” by John Z. Wee

John Z. Wee. Knowledge and Rhetoric in Medical Commentary: Ancient Mesopotamian Commentaries on a Handbook of Medical Diagnosis (Sa-gig). Cuneiform Monographs 49/1. Leiden: Brill, 2019.

The first person to introduce me to Akkadian medical texts was, in fact, John Z. Wee during his course in the NELC department at the University of Chicago. At the time and still now, the intersection of scholasticism and commentaries on Sa-gig struck me as noteworthy because of the pesharim in the Dead Sea Scrolls, not to mention the role of commentaries in Jewish tradition more broadly. Moreover, I was familiar with some of the more recent work exploring the intersection of Assyriology and biblical studies, especially Bronson Brown-deVost’s Commentary and Authority in Mesopotamia and Qumran, with whom I had a delightful conversation at SBL/AAR 2019 regarding my review of his book. So, although my interest in Akkadian medical texts and their commentaries is not driven primarily by an interest in pure Assyriology, such ancient literature and modern scholarship are imperative for exploring historical concepts and the development of authoritative literature in the ancient world, especially how we can more precisely identify not just what textual groupings were authoritative but how they were authoritative: What literary mechanisms did scribes use to allude to other literature, and to what ends do they draw upon that literature? What did ancient Mesopotamian commentators assume about literature, both what they drew upon to establish ideas in commentaries and what they assumed about the texts about which they commented? How do certain textual compendia and serialized texts, as well as how scribes interacted with those things, tell us about the broader structure and ancient concepts in relation to those texts? In some way, John Wee’s volume addresses all these matters. In this review, then, I will briefly summarize his work and then engage with some specific discussions in the volume.

In chapter one (part I), Wee demonstrates that Mesopotamian commentaries are more than texts explaining obscure language and cuneiform. Instead, commentaries are situated, reflecting broader knowledge assumptions of authors and readers, often with idiosyncratic comments. So, while commentaries are a distinct Mesopotamian genre, they are diverse based on their situatedness and contexts. Chapter one (part II) continues by discussing Sa-gig and it’s serialization. Here he focuses on three aspects. First, Sa-gig means, more or less, “the bundling together of sickness” or “all sickness” (25). Second, Sa-gig is designed for magicians, or ashipu. Wee explains this via the origins of Sa-gig: since Esagil-kin-apli was a magician, the text bore authority for those in the ashipu profession. Third, the language in what we call “Esagil-kin-apli’s Manifesto” conveys an image of editorial activity via a metaphor of binding textual strands into a single composition. In part III, he continues with further consideration of Sa-gig’s nature as a serialized text. Considering manuscript variants, he identifies multiple types of variants. (Notably, he doesn’t attempt to prune these variants. Note that this comment is a joke, a reference to Loki.) In his words, “No matter what motivated editors to combine incongruous or even contradictory written descriptions, they gave no indication that later audiences were supposed to pick out the ‘correct’ variant, or that two embedded variants in the same manuscript were not to be considered as both legitimate. Whatever the textual history behind embedded variants, once they were transmitted and received as features of serialized texts, they all became integral to the logic and interpretation of the larger discourse” (51). In other words, variants were not for picking one over the other but rather were incorporated into the discourse’s logic. To conclude chapter one (part IV), Wee explores how and why commentaries use the A:B equation for “interchangeable alternatives in the syntax and context of their larger narrative.” In the serialization process, he suggests the scribal equation A:B was a standard equation for embedded variants. Commentators use this same interpretive framework, ensuring the A:B equation preserved “the perceived significance or original scenarios” (83).

In chapter two (part I), Wee examines various commentary designations. After analyzing each category, he offers a hierarchy: satu and mukallimtu are the main commentary designations. These categories are then qualitified by lower-level categories like shut pi or mash’altu. The final level was the scribal lesson (preserved as cuneiform commentary in a specific tablet). This category invoked ummanu-scholar authoritative teaching for single base text tablets. Moreover, he shows that the level below satu and makallimtu “describe the general approach, philosophy, and method applied to the study of the base text composition” (141). In part II, Wee explores from whence commentators drew from for textual authority and how they used such materials. Working through a broad range of examples, he distinguishes between two types of citation: lexical text citation and narratival intertextuality. Barring my issue with how scholars abuse the term “intertextual,” this distinction is quite productive. Whereas lexical text citations enabled commentators to “adduce logical relationships between lexical entries in close proximity, as if they comprise a single block of text,” narratival intertexuality allowed commentators to “disregard major themes, priorities, and even context of the larger discourse, focusing instead on a lone sentence or turn of phrase for the meaning of an individual word or expression” (183). Part III of chapter two shifts to more technical discussion of the forms of argumentation in Mesopotamian commentaries. Suffice it to say that Wee is remarkably thorough and detailed here, and some Assyriologists will undoubtedly take issue with some parts of this chapter.

Part IV of chapter two offers some final comments to tie the loose ends together. Considering how authority resided in a text, he suggests that the majority of commentaries were “primarily concerned with the meanings of individual expression and ideas, rather than with articulating or promoting selected methods of interpretation” (282). That is, few commentaries—save for the example he offers of the Esoteric Babylonian commentary that functions as an exemplar for certain methods of interpretation—use methodological exemplars. Rather, authority often depended on the “intentions and proclivities of the individual interpreter” (285) within a particular place and time, and so distinguishing between “authority conferred upon a text or technique and that which was inherent in them” is difficult.

Part I of chapter three shifts gears and discusses the macrostructure of Sa-gig itself. Most notably, he considers this structure in light of the therapeutic tradition, especially focusing on how Sa-gig I–III is framed through time, IV–V as the stage for therapy, and VI as focused on other bodies. Part II of chapter three identifies that selected textual elements “reveal knowledge assumptions by commentators concerning their audience” (356). Although that observation is not particularly surprising or revelatory, he nonetheless sheds light on the types of knowledge that would have been taken for granted or required further explanation. Part III briefly considers how folks used Sa-gig, based on the commentaries and their origins. First, Uruk commentaries are typically about Sa-gig II, which makes sense because Sa-gig I–III were “atypical in the medical curriculum so far” (421). By contrast, Sa-gig IV and V were not new threads—that is, they were typical knowledge—and so we have less commentaries. As such, Wee suggests that “the individual Sa-gig tablet came to be treated as a self-contained unit of text for purposes of reading and even instruction,” hence the entries were not approached as a kind of narrative. Wee concludes by contextualizing Mesopotamian scholasticism with the broader swathe of European universities in the Middle Ages and into the Renaissance, offering thoughts on how Sa-gig commentaries speaks to scholasticism.

Admittedly, things became busier than expected when I began this book (e.g., COVID-19, new jobs, health issues, etc.). As such, I was unable to interact with this volume as closely as I had hoped. Nonetheless, I offer some minor critiques here and continue by discussing a few routes that scholars outside of Assyriology and medical texts might be able to engage with and utilize Wee’s work.

First, though Wee even notes that “adequate treatment of the issue of canonization is beyond the scope of this volume” (37), his brief consideration does oversimplify the notion of “conferral of canonical status.” Indeed, canon is highly problematic within religious and biblical studies. As such, scholars have spent countless hours and pens processing, articulating, and defining the term canon, not to mention the work of literary theory scholars. As such, that Wee simplifies things to “a strict distinction between the formation of a text ‘series’ and the conferral of canonical status” strikes me a problematic. Although minor, he seems more to claim that he wants to understand Sa-gig and serialized variants as part of a series, not as the unstable category of canon. Unfortunately, his discussion reads as if the term canon is consistent and stable, when in fact it is unstable and highly problematic. Thus, folks interested in drawing from his work to think about notions of textual compendia in the ancient world will need to wrestle with his discussion and reconsider his comments on canon. Nonetheless, thinking about the Sa-gig and its commentaries is, I think, imperative for exploring notions of so-called canon in the ancient world more broadly.

Second, though I do not intend to critique so much as to draw attention to an interesting observation, when Wee discusses textual authority of sources, he articulates the different between lexical text citations and what he calls “narratival intertextuality.” Whereas commentators drew from lexical texts and entries as “blocks of text,” they often ignored the broader context—seemingly an interpretive choice—when drawing from narrative textual sources of authority (160–162). How scribes distinguished between lexical texts and narrative texts, as well as how they interacted with them in discrete ways, is imperative to thinking more broadly about the role of narrative and stories in the ancient world. In particular, I think to the popularity of innerbiblical exegesis and intertextuality in biblical studies. Indeed, we can identify when Text A incorporates Text B, but a more systematic analysis of how texts use other texts (i.e., the extent to which they disregard context) with regard to genre would be a fruitful way to thinking about ancient Judean interpretive and literary practices.

In short, John Wee’s Knowledge and Rhetorical in Medical Commentary in an erudite and refreshing analysis of Sa-gig and its commentaries. Although a highly specialized subject, some of his broader observations about serialization, canonization, textual sources of authority, and embedded variants may be helpful for folks in religious studies thinking about so-called canon, interpretive practices and textual sources of authority, and the boundaries in the ancient world of what we often designate science and literature.