Thursday, March 19, 2009

The "Dr. Manhattan" Theory of Jewish Mysticism

If nothing else, movies are good for two things: 1) seeing things blow up 2) giving me tools to think with. The Watchmen movie wrapped one of each goodie together for me in a single scene.

On the one hand: Worst use of Dylan ever ("the times they are a' changin'" alongside shifting historical scenes is the new version of the wooden B&W movie standby where they show the pages blowing off a day calendar), worst use of Leonard Cohen ever, but that's because almost all uses of Leonard Cohen are subverted by lyrics that veer between slashing insight and intolerable schlock, and his fatal attraction to musical settings that resemble a beer commercial. There remains the undeniable ethical truth of the Cohen lines (which I thank Elliot Wolfson for quoting to me):

"Tho' your promise count for nothing
You must keep it nonetheless"

On the other: the Dr. Manhattan origin scene gives me something new: a perfect angle on the argument in early Jewish mysticism that Qumran texts like the Songs of the Sabbath Sacrifice do not present real mysticism because they do not depict "ontic transformation"--that is, they do not show us a dude actually turning into God.

This will be known henceforth as the "Dr. Manhattan" standard for mystical experience.

Sunday, March 15, 2009

Talking at Princeton Theological Seminary on March 17

I'll be talking to Chip Dobbs-Allsopp's Northwest Semitic Epigraphy class this Tuesday on my new book (copyedited proofs arrive Wednesday!), the topic will be something like "History Begins as the Voice of the King." Hit me up on facebook or send me a paper airplane if you're in the area!

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Anarchist Philology?

A big influence on my work on the relationship between writing and political order, David Graeber's Fragments of an Anarchist Anthropology asks, among other things, whether there ever was a West, and whether Athenian democracy was one of its gifts to the world or an odd repackaging of something most people normally do when nobody's pushing them around.

It was published by Prickly Paradigm, a pamphlet series designed to dispense big, relevant social theories in tasty little doses--and now the first run is available for free download. Scholars of the ancient world looking to upset their applecarts a little and have fun at the same time could do worse than play around here...

Friday, March 06, 2009

Three drowned books: Jeremiah 51 and the cultural "nature" of textuality

What did Jeremiah and his school think a text was? Building on Edward Silver's reading of Jeremiah 36 as based on a trope of materialization, this paper reads Jeremiah 51's command to weight the scroll of his prophecy and sink it in the Euphrates as the key moment in the articulation of a Jeremian language ideology that runs counter to modern assumptions about textuality. At least for this Jeremiah, the word of God was something that need to be both read and destroyed to be effective. It then reads Jeremiah's destruction of the materialized word of God with two other drowned books: those of the early 17th-century Marathi poet Tukaram and the early 17th-century English playwright William Shakespeare.

The conflicting tropes of destruction and salvation, communication and incommunication, mediation and concealment (consider Darius' invisible Behistun inscription or Ezekiel's edible, unread scroll), that these accounts manifest suggest that cross-culturally, textuality may lack fundamental features, such as fixity and openness to critique, that have been attributed to it in the late 20th-century Western scholarly tradition represented by Ong, Goody et al. In conclusion, the paper will suggest a different cross-culturally emergent feature of
textuality, that of materialization, that emerges from comparison. The recommendation is then that any discussion of textuality should begin with study of the local language ideologies, production formats and participation frameworks in which a text-artifact emerged.

Possibly to be given in the 2009 SBL's Textuality section.

Erving Goffman, "Footings" in Forms of Talk -- concepts of 'production format' and 'participation framework'
Sheldon Pollock, The Language of the Gods in the World of Men on Tukaram
Edward Silver, "Entextualization and Prophetic Action: Jeremiah 36 as Literary Artifact" (2008 SBL paper)

Wednesday, March 04, 2009

The Political Theology of Leviticus 16: The People as Agents of History

Scholarship has reached a consensus that the Priestly authors placed Leviticus 16, the "day of atonement" or Scapegoat ritual, at the architectural center of the Torah. As the ritual that begins the year and purifies the cosmically central sanctuary, it also lies at the center of ritual space and time. And it has been widely noted that the ritual prescribed shares essential features with other ancient Near Eastern expiation rituals.

What has not been recognized is the politics this implies. Unlike almost every other known ancient Near Eastern expiation ritual, the day of atonement is not performed on behalf of a king, country, or medical patient, but on behalf of a collective: the people of Israel. Is it an accident, then, that the one other known ritual from the entire ancient Near East done on behalf of collective population groups was KTU 1.40, the most widely-used ritual at Ugarit? For Ugarit is home, not only to the first known literary use of the alphabet, but also to the world's first vernacular literature, designed to speak to a 'people' in their own language.

If this ritual connection between the world's first and second known vernacular literatures is not an accident, then we gain here an insight into the origins and development of a previously unrecognized but powerful West Semitic political theory, one that had its greatest impact in what Foucault was to call"Biblical History."

This is: 1) the expansion of an idea I published in Maarav 2004, "What was the alphabet for?" 2) A teaser for my forthcoming book, The Invention of Hebrew (Illinois, 2009), and 3) A paper I might give at this year's Society of Biblical Literature annual meeting in New Orleans.

Monday, March 02, 2009

Do we know the Hebrew alphabet? A lesson on the difference between writing and language

How many consonants did Hebrew have?

This is a trick question. The answer depends on what you mean by a consonant: spoken or written. Today everybody knows we count 22 letters in the Hebrew alphabet. But everybody knows, and forgets, that it has 23 consonants: original Śin is still with us. Sorry.

Writing is the only way we can learn what the ancients said, but writing is not language. And as writing reveals, it always conceals something of what it transmits.

There's no better example of this than the way writing masks the sounds of speech even as it immortalizes them. Since the 19th century, scholars have argued that there were actually 25 sounds in ancient Hebrew and Aramaic: it has been long noted--and best argued by Joshua Blau--that the Septuagint distinguished original ǵayin and ḥa in many place names and other transliterations. During the 80's, Richard Steiner first realized that there was an entire Aramean religious liturgy--really a kind of alternate-universe Hebrew Bible, including a pagan version of Psalm 20 with Baal instead of the Lord, and mourning for an Exile (with the Assyrians around, lots of people got exiled), transcribed into Demotic in Egypt, that distinguished these two consonants.

The Hebrew and Aramaic writing systems had concealed some of the most basic facts of Hebrew and Aramaic from us for almost 2,000 years. This has to do with their own histories--they're both derived from Phoenician, which lost those two sounds, along with original śin, sometime before the first Phoenician writing (11th century B.C.E., depending on what you mean by "Phoenician").

I stole the lousy Śin joke from Richard Steiner, who published the definitive treatment of all these issues. The answer to the question of when, and how, Hebrew went from having 25 consonants to 23 holds lessons for us about the relationship between writing and language, as well as for when different parts of the Septuagint were created.

Blau, Joshua, 1982. On Polyphony in Biblical Hebrew. Proceedings of the Israel Academy of Sciences and Humanities VI/2.

Steiner, Richard L. 2005. “On the dating of Hebrew Sound Changes (*ḫ>ḥ and *ǵ>ˁ) and Greek Translations (2 Esdras and Judith) JBL 124:229-67

--originally posted June 30, 2005, updated today.

The first source-critical Bible goes online

This could be a watershed in the history of Bible criticism: the first online source-critical presentation of the Hebrew Bible, through II Samuel 5, went up this weekend. From now on, students and scholars looking for an accessible, well-founded treatment of the probable sources of the biblical text can start here

The author is Tzemah Yoreh, one of Israel Knohl's star students at Hebrew University and now a professor at AJU. While Yoreh's vision is not the only plausible one, it has two big advantages: 1) A short, eloquent introduction explains Yoreh's method, which is organic. It relies on Occam's Razor, the idea that the best explanations use as few assumptions as necessary. The result is a new version of the supplementary hypothesis, the idea that the Bible comes not from an assembly of sources but a series of interpretive additions, as religious thinkers collectively wove and rewove traditional texts they considered sacred. Like the process of inner-biblical interpretation illuminated by scholars like Sarna, Fishbane, Levinson, and Sommer, each source wrote with scripture by building on the sources it found. The Bible Yoreh shows us is not just a set of fragments, obscurely cobbled together by narrow elites for ulterior motives (though his analysis raises essential questions of social location and group interest too) but coherent acts of poiesis: collective cultural world-making.

2) Yoreh's presentation is simpler and seems more coherent than the fragmentary hypothesis which has come to dominate European scholarship. Under this hypothesis--nicely summarized by Kevin Wilson-- the Priestly source wove together five fragmentary blocks of tradition, that were sometimes aware of each other and sometimes not. Yoreh's parsimony does not make him right, but he's got one big thing going for him: nobody else has put all of their results together in a useful form and published them online. This kind of public scholarship, which takes both work and courage, should become a fundamental go-to for students and a helpful tool for scholars to think with.

Sunday, March 01, 2009

How to get into grad school: An anthropologist's view

From my friend Rex (an anthropologist who works on Papua New Guinea and gaming and who has some excellent ideas on the relationship between the Babylonian Epic of Creation and Western Political Theory), "What we look for in applicants."

With the addition of languages (know a Semitic or at least a dead one or, for archaeology, have field experience), this is a good guide for Near Eastern and Biblical Studies too.