Review: “Before and after Babel: Writing as Resistance in Ancient Near Eastern Empires” by Marc Van De Mieroop

Marc Van De Mieroop. Before and after Babel: Writing as Resistance in Ancient Near Eastern Empires. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2023. 360 pp.

Summary

In Before and After Babel: Writing as Resistance in Ancient Near Eastern Empires, Marc Van De Mieroop uses Sheldon Pollock’s cosmopolitan-vernacular model of language to consider language and writing in the ancient Near East. In the second millennium BCE, Van De Mieroop argues Babylonian functioned as the cosmopolitan language, the “language and script for their written communications” (2). While Babylonian remains a cosmopolitan language in the first millennium BCE, vernacular languages become increasingly popular alongside the cosmopolitan Babylonian language. While second-millennium interactions with the Babylonian cosmopolitan language were not focused on resistance in the same way as first-millennium interactions, both periods reflect strategies wherein scribes did not simply translate passages but “reformulated them to fit new contexts and ideologies” (4). As such, Van De Mieroop offers a approach to ancient Near Eastern writing, languages, and history with an eye to imperialism, the interplay between the cosmopolitan language and vernacular languages, and how this interplay developed.

Part I of this book focuses on Babylonian cosmopolitanism in the second millennium BCE. In Chapter One, Van De Mieroop reviews unilingual Akkadian, unilingual Sumerian, and bilingual Akkadian/Sumerian texts to show how scribes used such bilingualism to approach textual reproduction with creativity but within boundaries. In Chapter Two, he explores how various local regions incorporated Babylonian writing while, in some cases, holding on to local tradition as a conscious attempt to integrate themselves into a larger international network. In doing so, he emphasizes the ongoing, nuanced relationship between vernacular and cosmopolitan writing, between the periphery and the center. Chapter Three describes how although Babylonia’s scribal network and flourishing collapsed, scribal communities on the margins (e.g., Hittites, Sealand Dynasty, Susa, etc.) continued developing and maintaining Babylonia’s ancient scribal traditions. Chapter Four frames the use of Babylonian writing and the spread of Babylonian textual traditions as a form of second-millennium cosmopolitanism. In this environment, Babylonian traditions and writing were equally important for Babylon and those on the peripheries (e.g., Amarna, Hattushi, Emar, etc.). what Vav De Mieroop makes clear, though, is that even as each region tapped into this cosmopolitan language and tradition, local scribes modified traditions for their local culture. As such, he suggests “works of Babylonian literature became works of world literature. A Babylonian text never had such authority that it could not be altered” (101).

Part II of this book focuses on the increase in vernacular languages in relation to the Babylonian cosmopolitan languages and explores various aspects of this relationship. Before focusing on the vernacular languages and their interactions with the Babylonian cosmopolitan language, Chapter Five makes clear the Babylonian intellectuals worked to preserve their traditions through scrupulous continuity. Chapter Six considers Luwian’s ephemeral success as a vernacular language and it interacted with the cosmopolitan language. Similarly, Chapter Seven considers how Phoenician and Aramaic grew and came to interact with Babylonian. Chapter Eight takes a similar approach for Hebrew. What he highlights for Chapters Six through Nine, though, is how each vernacular developed apart from and simultaneously in relation to the Babylonian cosmopolitan language. In particular, each chapter highlights how the vernacular languages write in resistance to the cosmopolitan language. Chapter Ten brings these ideas together to suggest that the switch to an alphabetic system instead of cuneiform played a significant role in shifting how people wrote and understood texts/traditions, as alphabets could not be interpreted in the same way as cuneiform’s polyvalent signs. Thus, scholarship and intellectual traditions were “uncoupled from writing” (239), from script. The epilogue briefly considers how Greek overtook Babylonian as the cosmopolitan language and tradition.

Conclusion

Overall, Van De Mieroop synthesizes and compiles a range of topics, regions, and fields of study into a single, accessible monograph. In doing so, he has constructed a history of writing, scripts, vernaculars, and cosmopolitan languages in the ancient Near East. Undoubtedly, this volume can be a helpful starting point for a general audience and students. And, indeed, Assyriologists and biblical scholars may find small nuggets throughout his work. Even so, the monograph offer no particularly striking or ground-breaking analysis that will significantly impact Assyriology, biblical scholarship, or other adjacent fields. In fact, many will find themselves disagreeing with Van De Mieroop as they read this monograph. (The margins in my copy are certainly filled with comments, disagreements, question marks, and exclamation points!). Nonetheless, I want to reiterate that this monograph is an excellent starting point for familiarizing oneself with the history of writing in the ancient Near East.

In the following sections, I detail some my disagreements (based on my current research focus).

Distributed Libraries and Eleanor Robson

As of June 2023, I am preparing an SBL paper that explains the Pentateuch’s citational inexactitude via what Eleanor Robson characterizes as distributed libraries and ancient knowledge networks in the ancient Near East. In reading her Ancient Knowledge Networks: A Social Geography of Cuneiform Scholarship in First-Millennium Assyria and Babylonia, she comments that scholars tend to provide broad, generalist histories of cuneiform scholarship that do not account for local variations (p. 10). In particular, she highlights that Van De Mieroop’s Philosophy before the Greeks (2015) downplays “the historical, social, geographical, political and contingent in favour of overarching grand synthesis” (p. 43n1). Although Van De Mieroop indeed focuses on a grand, overarching synthesis in Before and after Babel, he adequately addresses some of Robson’s concerns. Throughout the volume, he attempts to account for the local variations in relation to the Babylonian cosmopolitan. Thus, Van De Mieroop has begun to address these matters, contrary to Robson’s comment.

That said, Van De Mieroop could take this a step further. (And perhaps others ought to do so!) For instance, Chapter Five’s discussion on Babylonian scholars’ scrupulous continuity invokes various libraries to ascertain how Babylonian scholars in the first millennium engaged with their traditions from the second millennium, broadly speaking. To strengthen his work, Van De Mieroop should not have solely considered Babylonian scholars in the first millennium as part of an overall synthesis; rather, he should have considered how the various so-called libraries each reflect distinct practices and patterns. Such an analysis would have resulted in a more nuanced understanding of first-millennium cosmopolitanism, scribes relationship with royalty and temple institutions constantly shifted, not to mention the frequently moving capital cities! In accounting for such matters, he might have been able to more effectively nuance Babylonian cosmopolitanism in the first millennium. Worth consideration, for instance, is that institutions and knowledge networks meant to secure and reinforce the Babylonian cosmopolitan may have unintentionally destabilized Babylonian’s cosmopolitan centrality. That is, shifting the capital multiple times, removing cuneiform tablets from the peripheries to bring them into the center, general political instability, and changing ideas about Babylonian scholarship may have contributed to its downfall. Ironically, these sort of actions may have been intended to reinforce the tradition. This example is but one of how more consideration of local variations could have improved Van De Mieroop’s analysis.

Writing as Resistance

Whether in biblical studies, religious studies, Assyriology, or adjacent fields, writing as resistance is a common idea. And Van De Mieroop rightly brings these fields together to construct an overarching narrative. In his words, “I have tried to accentuate the agency of vernacular authors and emphasized that they reacted to the cosmopolitan. Instead of merely receiving ideas, they actively appropriated them and manipulated them as acts of contestation” (225). Indeed, he is right to emphasize that vernacular authors reacted to the cosmopolitan and had agency. However, Van De Mieroop’s claim is overstated and does not adequately account for acts of writing that were not a form of resistance. While I don’t necessarily have the time or capacity to provide details or analysis in this vein in order to highlight why his claim is overstated, I can instead highlight the danger of simply claiming that writing is an act of contestation.

First, this claim fundamentally reinforces the idea that vernaculars gain all their knowledge from an external source and thus ironically implies they do not have agency, the ability to write and create in a way not entirely dependent on others. I do not think Van De Mieroop is arguing for this point, to be clear; however, he concludes with a broad point that could easily be taken in that way. As such, his central claim should have been more refined to prevent others from misunderstanding his text as seuch.

Second, specialists will likely disagree with the claim that writing is necessarily an act of contestation. Jeffrey Stackert’s recent monograph on D, for example, argues that D uses Esharddon’s Succession Treaty not to be subversive but simply for its own literary aims. Thus, Van De Mieroop’s broad claim is at odds with a Pentateuchal scholar’s recent detailed analysis. Undoubtedly, others have put forward similar arguments that certain texts are not about contestation or subversion but rather have different aims. Therefore, folks reading this book, whether as a general audience, student, or scholar, must engage with the specialists that Van De Mieroop works to synthesize, lest all a reader gains from the volume is an overly simplistic notion of how the vernacular relates to the cosmopolitan language.

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Pseudepigrapha Saturday: 1 Enoch

Introduction to the Text:

I provided a brief introduction to 1 Enoch previously:

The Ethiopic Book of Enoch is the earliest of three works attributed to him. It is rooted in Genesis 5:24 where Enoch “walked with God… and then he vanished because God took him”. Written in portions between the 2nd century B.C.E. and 1st century C.E., the text explores the unknown mysteries of the universe revealed to Enoch alone. Further complicating the date, it is composite literature composed of multiples strata.

1 Enoch consists of five Books: The Book of the Watchers, the Book of the Similitude, the Book of Astronomical Writings, the Book of Dream Visions, and the Book of the Epistle of Enoch. As mentioned previously, various fragments demonstrate its composite nature. (Source)

Essentially 1 Enoch is a tradition “of Enoch’s spiritual relocation… when he was taken away by God, saw the secrets of of the mysteries of the universe, the future of the world, and the predetermined course of human history” [1].

In this post, though, I will briefly consider the scribe or righteousness. More so, I will raise a question and note provide an answer.

1 Enoch,Writing, and Scribes:

In a recent contribution to Evil and Death: Conceptions of the human in Biblical, Early Jewish, Greco-Roman and Egyptian Literature, Ekaterina Matusova suggests that the “great rivers” in 1 Enoch 17:5-6, generally attributed to Greek influence, are part of a substratum of Mesopotamian  influence [2]. What I’d like to question is other areas where the influence may not necessarily have been Greek .

In 1 Enoch 13:4-7a, Azaz’el and his followers, fallen angels, requests Enoch to write for them:

“And they begged me to write for them a memorial prayer in order that there may be for them a prayer of forgiveness, and so that I may raise their memorial prayer unto the Lord of heaven. For, as for themselves, from henceforth they will not be able to speak, nor will they raise their eyes unto heaven as a result of their sins which have been condemned. And then I wrote down their memorial prayers and the petitions on behalf of their spirits and the deeds of each one of them…”

This portion of text is intriguing because, if I am reading it correctly, writing is directly associated with the act of Enoch as an intercessor. Azaz’el does not request intercession; rather, he requests a written petition. Matthew Black translates “they besought me to draw up for them a memorial and petition” [3]. In either case, it is evident that writing is integral to Enoch’s intercessory role.

I wonder from where this influence arrived. Is writing integral to Enoch’s intercessory role due to Greek influence, Biblical tradition, or Mesopotamian thought? While I am unable to answer, or even provide a thorough answer, it is something to consider. For in 1 Enoch 15:1, Enoch is called “righteous man, scribe of righteousness”. Based at least on these two reference, it seems that the author(s), namely the scribal community, intend to speak something about themselves through how they speak of writing, or something about how they fit within certain cultural standards of scribal practice.

Perhaps I’ll explore the topic of writing, reading, and scribal practices in 1 Enoch in the near future.

 

[1] E. Isaac,“1 (Ethiopic Apocalypse of) ENOCH”, in The Old Testament Pseudepigrapha, Volume I (Peabody: Hendrickson Publishers, 1983), 5.

[2] Ekaterina Matusova, “The Post-mortem Divisions of the Dead in 1 Enoch 22:1-13”, eds. Beato Ego and Ulrike Mittmann, in Evil and Death: Conceptions of the human in Biblical, Early Jewish, Greco-Roman and Egyptian Literature (Berlin: de Gruyter: 2015), 149-177.

[3] Matthew Black, The Book of Enoch or 1 Enoch (Leiden: Brill: 1985), 32.

What Do I Take For Granted?

As I read through Shakespeare, the Bible, and the Form of the Book yesterday, a portion of the text revealed to me an pre-supposition of mine when I read the Hebrew Bible. Regarding book printing during Shakespeare’s time, Paul Werstine writes about what happened when a proofreader discovered an error:

Therefore, when a proofreading discovered what he took to be an error in a sheet being run off the press, he might well order the press stopped for as long as it took to correct the apparent error, but would not order destroyed the sheets that had already been printed with the error in them because paper was too valuable (119).

While there definitely is something important being said about the actual writing/printing process, that is not my focus. My focus is, rather, the value of writing and paper. Or, in the case of the Hebrew Bible, scrolls. Things to write upon were not nearly as accessible in the ancient world as they are now. So any mention of “writing” or “scroll” in the Hebrew Bible should not be glossed over. In fact, the mention of “writing” or “scroll” should be highlighted, for it was not a common thing to have a scroll. Scrolls were precious because they were valuable. What is valuable often becomes the centerpiece, if you will, to a table that is society and culture. And in the case of the ancient world, writing was absolutely a centerpiece to society and culture.