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