Friday, February 25, 2011

Revelation and Science in Early Judaism

Thursday, March 3 at 6pm I'll be speaking at ISAW on:

Revelation and science in early Judaism: Babylonian sages, heavenly temples, and the recovery of a lost moment in the history of knowledge

Strangely, the oldest known Jewish apocalyptic work, the Astronomical Book of Enoch, also contains the first known mathematics and astronomy in a Jewish text. Did the Hellenistic period represent the dawn of a kind of scientific thought in Judaism? If so, what did it have to do with the Babylonian background of the richly mythic, and even mystical, figure of Enoch? Clearly something new was dawning, for which current historical frameworks (such as Hellenization or other sorts of assimilation) are not quite adequate. Recently, scholars have argued for integrating these texts into the history of science. But how would we decide if "science" is the the category we want? A striking problem emerges when one compares the divergent reasons scholars have given for why texts like the Astronomical Book should be called science: it seems easier to agree that it is science than to specify why. The goal of this talk is to explore analogies within biblical and early Jewish texts themselves to compare with modern characterizations of ancient science. To do this I will examine categories that can be found in the language of the Biblical Hebrew Priestly work and the Standard Literary Aramaic Books of Enoch. In particular I will sketch one major element of Enoch's conceptual background: Priestly categorizations of what we (but probably not the Priestly writers) might call the "natural world" in Genesis 1-2:4a, Exodus 25-31, and Leviticus 12-15. I will then explore an important, but previously unnoticed, way that the editors of the Astronomical Book and the Book of the Watchers framed the knowledge revealed to Enoch. A recurring Aramaic phrase in this integrative framework, "I was shown another calcluation", displays a syntax with a distinctive grammatical encoding of epistemology, a category linguists refer to as evidential. Enoch's evidentials make claims about how Enoch knew what he knew. They can therefore help us reflect on the analytical category of "science" in a way that is sensitive to the divergent ancient theories of knowledge underlying our texts, and come closer to understanding how ancient Jewish scientists understood themselves.

The talk is at the NYU Institute for the Study of the Ancient World, 15 E. 84th St, in New York.

For much more on this, come to the Ancient Jewish Sciences and the History of Knowledge conference April 4; participants will include James VanderKam, Loren Stuckenbruck, Mladen Popovic, Jonathan Ben-Dov, Alexander Jones, Annette Yoshiko Reed, and me.