Monday, June 20, 2005

Why you can't Dig up a Nation-State

Jacob Taubes used to say that there were some books whose essence was conveyed in the title. I recall that among them was Hegel's Phenomenology of Spirit: the great point of the book was that Geist (which means more than "spirit"--it includes thought, so it's the thing that stands behind both intellectual and spiritual things) has a phenomenology, that you can learn what you need to know about it by thinking about what it does. Up til then it had seemed to be graspable only by either art or metaphysics--Hegel argued that its mechanisms were traceable in history. What's so wonderful about that wasn't that he was right but that he made Fredric Jameson possible. I know that sounds silly. What I intend to convey by that is that he laid the philolosophical foundation for a view of history in which the material and spiritual, technology and culture, are understood to be legible as a whole. And if you can possibly do it right (it's HARD) this is the best (only) way to do history and culture--heck, to do anthropology, literature and--yes--philology.

There are other books, less important but also interesting, that give away their main point on the first page. Ian Hodder's Symbols in Action: Ethnoarchaeological Studies of Material Culture, is one. (BTW anyone who dismisses, out of hand, the intellectual breadth of Evangelical educational institutions should ponder the fact that the University of Chicago's mighty Regenstein library had to Inter-Library-Loan me this baby from Wheaton College).

On the first page, Hodder describes those similar clusters of objects people dig up out of the ground ("Israelite," "Mongol," "Chinese") as "material 'cultures.'" This is a rare case where the scare quotes pack a punch, rather than suck the air out of the room: you look at the typography, wonder why he's put it in quotes, and then you think: "Ah, he's asking how we know they're cultures at all--precisely how do we get from clusters of pottery styles to structures of thought and action?" Once you question the assumption that artifact types directly correlate with culture--like ethnic boundaries and self-identification, let alone language or "race" (can't possibly type out enough scare quotes to deflate that one) you're left with a gaping hole at the center of your method: you dig up a pattern and call it a culture, while knowing nothing at all about what the people who made it thought about it.

Hodder, being a professional archaeologist, has to build around this gaping hole, but I don't know how successfully he plugs it. I ponder the consequences for Biblical Studies here

Thursday, May 12, 2005

Where Do Empires Come From? Israel, Assyria, and the Question of U.S. Imperialism

Why is God supposed to be a universal political ruler, and why do people think America wants to conquer the world? The two questions are related, and perhaps they're also inseparable from what we study as Biblicists: what the Israelites learned from Assyria.

One of the most interesting recent doctoral theses I've heard about is Cyntha Chapman's The Gendered Language of Warfare in the Israelite-Assyrian Encounter, which was done at Harvard with Peter Machinist and is now published. She makes clear that those famous Assyrian royal inscriptions and reliefs, showing the king as a decisive and utterly dominating force, whose enemies are described as soiling themselves in fear and depicted as cringing, kowtowing or mounted on stakes, is what you'd call a performance of masculinity. That is, he didn't just kill lots of people, he did it in style, and talked about it relentlessly. Her second point is that, in Biblical literature of the 7th century B.C.E. and later, Jerusalem is depicted overwhelmingly as a woman, the violated and forlorn "daughter Zion" of Lamentations. But if the Assyrian king is a masculine dominator and Jerusalem is a female victim, what does that make God? Chapman's book works out the prophetic answer.

The consequences of this go far beyond poetry: Israelite writers thought a lot about empire, comparing Israel to the succession of men who, in trampling through their small country, claimed to be carrying a mission to rule the world. They thought about how they were and weren't like their imperial rulers. Empire was imprinted on their consciousness.

Though its core is older, Psalm 89 became an icon of this:

21) I found David my servant, with my holy oil I anoint him.
22) Who my hand shall accompany and make firm,
indeed my arm will make him strong
23) No enemy shall oppose him, no lowly one afflict him.
24) And I crush his enemies before him,
I will strike down his haters
25) And my faithfulness and steadfastness will be with him,
and in my name shall his horn be raised.
26) And I place his hand on the sea, and his right on the rivers.
27) He shall declare to me,
“You are my father, my God and the Rock of my victory!”
28) Indeed, I will appoint him firstborn,
highest of the kings of the world
29) I will maintain my steadfastness with him forever,
and my covenant will faithfully endure…

But the rest of the prayer reverses this triumph, mourning how God has let David's dominance be shattered--God's covenant, it seems, did not faithfully endure. The psalm is almost an incantation, summoning God to pony up, demonstrate his vaunted faith, and restore his side of the bargain. The prayer dares God to be a real imperial ruler.

I would argue that what we see here, in the precise imprint left by an empire on a subject people, is nothing less than the secret of empire itself: that people learn from it, imitate it, and use these lessons to form new empires. The Bible carries the marks of Assyria and Persia and was used as a model for new empires after Rome.

This point was originally made by Sheldon Pollock, a scholar of Sanskrit, who pointed out that since imperialism is not a natural phenomenon, but must be learned in every detail from others, we would do well to think about how this learning takes place. He first made it at this soon-to-be-published conference on the Lessons of Empire, along with John Kelly, who asked if the U.S. is really an empire today (if it is, how are corporations that can take money and deploy military force not? or is the term blinding us to what's really going on?) and Iraq scholar and Jonah Goldberg golf buddy Juan Cole. The book should be a doozy.

Pollock and Kelly first asked these questions of the Ancient Near East at our conference in February, and I'm editing their contributions right now. This book should be a doozy too.

Thursday, April 28, 2005

Models in Biblical Studies

I've been thinking recently about the models we use in Biblical Studies.

The twentieth century opened with Hermann Gunkel's use of an oral-poetic model, influenced by the brilliant studies of folklore that his philological and Romantic predecessors such as the brothers Grimm and Herder had pioneered. The most interesting study of this work, and its legacy for the study of difference and modernity itself, is Charles Briggs and Richard Bauman's Voices of Modernity, which despite a bit of Latour damage, I cannot recommend highly enough.

But we stuck with the folk model throughout the whole 20th century, even when we knew better. From Albright to Cross to Niditch, studies of Israelite orality have continued to posit relatively pristine societies that lived by the magical spoken word and mystified writing as well.

In addition to stuff that's closer geographically (Moab, Carchemish, Assyria), I am looking for material that provokes me to think more useful thoughts. And one of the main places I turn is Medieval and early Modern India. Unlike the pristine folk cultures imagined by Gunkel, South Asia represents a radically polyglot milieu which had had multiple high languages and writing systems (think Babylonian, Egyptian and Assyrian dominance) as well as a variety of vernaculars (think of the spectrum of Aramean, Edomite, Greek, Phoenician, Philistine, Assyrian, Babylonian and Persian, as well as the Judean/Israelite splits, which fracture culture in Israel). So when Sumit Guha suggests historical studies charting "the co-evolution of language and identity," I'm right there with him.

The point is most emphatically not that India under the Raj was somehow "more like" Israel under Assyria than a group of German peasants in the Schwarzwald (or, more to the point, Francophone housekeepers), though that may be true--the point is that, among many productive ways of seeing the interplay of tradition, difference and change in history, South Asian studies has access to a number of privileged examples and is using them in ways that might help all of us think.

Why Study the Hebrew Bible?

And here's my pitch for what I do with my life, in the form of another course writeup:

This course introduces the most popular book in history, and the main thing Judaism, Christianity, and Islam have in common. The Hebrew Bible’s determining force in Western culture is connected to its remarkable political and theological claim that it contains commands by the ruler of the universe to his subjects. Yet this book appears, on closer inspection, to be no book at all but a collection of disparate documents put together by an imperial subject people. Through careful reading of the text in translation, we will explore the Bible as both a marginal ancient literature and a voice of supreme power. We will direct our readings and questions with key texts in the history of modern Bible criticism and the ancient Near East.

We'll be using:
Adele Berlin, ed. The Jewish Study Bible (Oxford U P, 2003)
John J. Collins, Introduction to the Hebrew Bible (Augsburg Fortress, 2004)
Richard Elliott Freedman, Who Wrote the Bible? (HarperSanFrancisco, 1997)
Jon Levenson, Creation and the Persistence of Evil (Princeton U P, 1994)
Martti Nissinen, Prophets and Prophecy in the Ancient Near East (Society of Biblical Literature, 2003)

Why Study Women in the Hebrew Bible?

This is my attempt to answer that question, in the form of a course description for a Fall Semester class at Cornell.

Women in the Hebrew Bible

The Hebrew Bible commands laws and tells stories about women as war leaders, lovers, prophetesses and prostitutes, as well as ordinary daughters and goddesses (possibly including God’s wife!). Formed in an ancient Near Eastern society, these laws and stories are still drawn on today to make religious rules, social roles and art. We will read these texts as factors in history: Who wrote them? What did these stories and laws say and do? What roles do they carve out and what realities do they reflect and create? The texts will be read in English translation, drawing on cultural anthropology, feminist theory, linguistics and archaeology to provide critical perspectives on ancient patriarchy and the state as well as modern secular-liberal notions of freedom and self.

We'll draw from:
Adele Berlin, ed. The Jewish Study Bible (Oxford U P, 2003)
Tikva Frymer-Kensky, Reading the Women of the Bible (Schocken, 2004)
Alice Bach, Women in the Hebrew Bible: A Reader (Routledge, 1998)
Ilana Pardes, Countertraditions in the Bible (Harvard University Press, 1993)
Mishael Maswari Caspi and Rachel Havrelock, Women on the Biblical Road (University Press of America, 1997)

And I'm actively seeking other suggestions and wisdom...

Wednesday, April 27, 2005

A Better Memory: The Peculiar Persistence of Israel in Texts and DNA

Why did the Bible outlast Babylon? Millions of people, over and over, from the returning Judean exiles to the early Church to people of faith today, claim to be the "real Israel." Many acquire a new past, others actively choose to invoke and remember an old one, others forget. Is conversion a form of recovered memory, a kind of identity fraud? What do different people who claim to be part of the "real Israel" have in common? Scholars of religion and anthropology, as well as Biblical historians, struggle over what it means to convert and what kind of pasts are authentic.

What fascinates me is when it turns out that the early history of something--let's say, the invention of the memory of Israel--can shed light on its subsequent history, not because the origins tell you everything, but because a kind of internal logic might be revealed that is played out over and over again, different and the same in different ways each time.

This sometimes requires going back in time to before we even realize something was invented. My colleague and namesake Seth Richardson studies Babylonian history. I popped into his office today to say hi and talk about ancient political theory, as is my wont. Spying a book on his desk, we launched into a short talk on a crucial event in ancient Near Eastern history: the meeting of the (semi)nomadic concept of "the people" as the protagonist of politics and ritual with the technology of writing. The book that sparked it was Daniel Fleming's fantastic Democracy's Ancient Ancestors , a close look at the first time nomadic politics encountered writing, in the Old Babylonian city-state of Mari. Here politics wasn't defined by borders in space (the matum "land" or alum "settlement") but by kinship. The political relationships this system creates between people could persist across space and, once imagined in writing, across time as well. The written image of a "people" created an amazingly powerful model for emulation. Why?

Seth's one-liner: "it makes for a better memory."

I thought this was a beautiful way to get at the power of the concept of Israel as an imagined--and real--community that flows around the borders of states and persists across space and time. The people as fact and symbol, legal fiction and memory. And I'm not the first to be enchanted by it. Indians and British, South African Lemba and Nigerian Igbo have all imagined themselves to be lost tribes of Israel. What's stunning is when genetic evidence shows that some of them actually are.

The crucial thing about the genetic evidence is that, while it's hard science, it instantly becomes culture as soon as people think about it and do anything with it. While such proof changes everything, in other ways it changes nothing. The struggles over identity and meaning--encapsulated in the way that DNA itself becomes a symbol--continue. In this article, Invisible Races, written for the African/American race and culture journal Transition, I investigate how the Bantu-speaking Lemba, who have an unquestionable DNA link to the ancient Israelite priesthood, complicate the already dizzying "who is a Jew" argument.

Monday, April 25, 2005

An Exile from the Republic of Letters Returns

I am happy to report that, with little or no help from the Persian Empire, I have ended my exile from the Republic of Letters, that is, the web.

And I am positively delighted to report that my sojourn--to help start some new scholarly conversations, to work on some books, and to find a job for next year--has been successful.

I ran the first conference on the political history of writing in the ancient Near East. It was held at the end of February at the University of Chicago Oriental Institute. Jim Davila, with typically wide-ranging interest, asked if anyone would be blogging it. The answer, of course, is, "yes, Jim, me--just two months late!" Fellow Biblicists participating were Bill Schniedewind, whose presentation on the death of written Hebrew and Jewish nationalism was as genial as it was provocative, and Peter Machinist, who placed the conference in the context of the past century of ancient Near Eastern studies' moves to a broader intellectual public. I felt honored to be involved in the lineage of Henri Frankfort's Intellectual Adventure of Ancient Man and Robert McCormick Adams' City Invincible. It's true these were ambitious comparative projects done at the Oriental Institute, featuring a wide range of scholars of great intellectual firepower. I can certainly vouch for our intellectual ambitions and the stunning depth of knowledge and ideas the participants brought--now I just have to turn it into a book! What's best is that this is going to be an annual tradition at the Oriental Institute.

But this only scratches the surface of the people and ideas, not to mention the food (the caterers began life catering for Aerosmith, and they did not disappoint). The U of Chicago Chronicle did a nice piece on it, and this will have to do for tonight.

This week, look for more on the conference: intellectual sparks between philology and anthropology! Did the Hittites speak Hittite, was Sumerian a sham perpetrated by Amorite intellectuals, or does it even make sense to talk about languages living and dying? Plus, what I've been thinking about ancient Israel as a public, the native Jews of South Africa, and the courses I'll be teaching at Cornell next year.

Wednesday, January 26, 2005

Cuneiform in Canaan

I have been ferociously busy, researching the poetics and pragmatics of combat myths in the Hebrew Bible (much more of that later), teaching some class sessions at UIC (if anyone proclaims to you that you can't use Jonas Greenfield's "The Zakir Inscription and the Danklied" to help teach Pentecostals and Muslims about what Biblical and Near Eastern prophecy might have in common through a close look at the occasion, themes and poetics of prophecy in Hebrew and Aramaic, they are falsely prophesying and cannot be believed), rooting around in the historical grammar of West Semitic, and of course cross-country skiing with my dog.

Most importantly, I am just putting the very final touches on my edition of three very short but very difficult texts. These are the three alphabetic cuneiform inscriptions found in the land of Israel, which are to be published in Wayne Horowitz, Takayoshi Oshima and Seth L. Sanders, eds., Cuneiform in Canaan and the Land of Israel (Israel Exploration Society?, 2006?). It sounds better in Hebrew as Ketav Yetidot beKanaan.

Though all three were first published decades ago, their real significance has only begun to unfold recently. Among the new things we find in these texts, which I date to the 13th and 12th centuries B.C.E., are: an abecedary that isn't in alphabetical order--that is, it's not in the alef-bet-gimel order from which we get our ABC's, but the halham order known from Epigraphic South Arabian (Beth Shemesh), and an inscribed knife which, I believe, displays a dialect feature known only from the oldest variety of Phoenician (Nahal Tabor). Just by themselves, these texts open up new views on language and culture in the southern Levant because they are some of the earliest examples of people representing their "own" languages (that is, a local and distinctive linguistic tradition, whether exactly identical with the ones they speak or not) over against the international cosmopolitan lingua franca of Sumero-Akkadian cuneiform, and they show a variety of phonemes and writing styles that nobody had quite expected. In fact I think these texts go some way toward disproving some of the theories of linear development of script and language propounded by my revered teacher Frank Moore Cross.

The most interesting question for me when it comes to epigraphy, is: what do you do when the hard facts knock cracks in the clean, straightforward theories of unilinear progress? The easy way out is to go wild in the other direction, to decompose everything into increasingly narrow, local details: "in general, everything is specific," no more big narratives, etc.

But the real quest, I think, is to discover how it all hangs together without moving in a straight line.


Appreciation for my prececessors, who have already done a great deal of the thinking and work, compels me to review some earlier treatments. In two of three cases I believe I have been able to add something to the understanding of the originals, either because of recently discovered parallels (the Beth Shemesh abecedary was illuminated by a better preserved parallel from Ugarit itself, which received an excellent treatment by Dennis Pardee and Pierre Bordreuill, (“RS 8.2215. Abécédaire,” in M. Yon and D. Arnaud, eds., Études Ougaritiques 1: Travaux 1985-1993 RSO XIV [Paris: Éditions Recherche sur les Civilisations, 2001] 341-48) or because I asked a different question of the text (the phonology of the Nahal Tabor inscription).

All three of these texts were treated as part of larger studies of the early alphabet by E. Puech, “Origine de L’Alphabet,”  RB 93 (1986) 161-213, which contains good handcopies and careful paleographic readings, and M. Dietrich and O. Loretz, Die Keilalphabete, (Ugarit-Verlag, Muenster, 1988), which sets them in the context of a larger theory of the development of the alphabet at the end of the bronze age (a theory I think is wrong, but which is well documented and argued there).

Three areas where my reeditions might most obviously be useful are 1) they are done as part of a comprehensive study of cuneiform writing in Israel, 2) they draw on new discoveries at Ugarit and elsewhere and 3) they are in English, which could make them more convenient for some.

Sunday, January 16, 2005

Biblical Hebrew II: C'est de l'Hébreu pour moi!

What kind of a linguistic record is the Hebrew Bible? More--was it meant to record a language?

The sociolinguist Sarah Roberts comments, apropos of my previous post, that, in trying to see how complete a picture your written sources give you of a language's lexicon, looking for spoons is not a bad way to go. That is, the method Ullendorff uses (seeing how well those pedestrian, daily-life words are covered; interestingly, this is not at all the same as making a Swadesh list) proves useful, but "Another approach is to calculate the proportion of hapax legomena in the corpus; the higher the proportion, the less representative the corpus usually is. It is also important to pay attention to the kinds of literary genres that comprise your sources..."

Ullendorff is way ahead of me here as well: he cites the great (greatest?) Semitist Noeldeke who had already, in the classic "Semitic Languages" article in the classic 13th edition of the Encyclopedia Brittanica (from 1912, if memory serves, but still unequalled*) noted that the numerous hapaxes are "a sufficient proof that many more words existed than appear in the O.T." Ullendorff goes on to cite a list of these hapaxes which, at 2,440, would constitute about a third of the vocabulary of the Bible! Others have produced somewhat lower numbers but the point is made.

He also notes words that we would have expected to find in Biblical times, for example the Mishnah's massu'ot "fire signals," (as opposed to the Tanakh's semantically diffuse mas'et, which can be anything from "portion of food" to "tax" to "pillar of smoke"; see discussion in comments below) which we then dug up out of the ground, on an ostracon at Lachish (4:10). His conclusion is that Biblical Hebrew is more of a "linguistic fragment," "To be sure, a very important and indeed far-reaching fragment, but scarcely a fully integrated language which in this form...could ever have been spoken and have satisfied the needs of its speakers. The evidence presented by the epigraphical material contemporary with the OT and by the Mishna, its immediate successor, underlines the essentially fragmentary character of the language of the Hebrew Bible. And there is a strong case, in my submission, for looking upon the language of the Mishna as the developed colloquial--otherwise so largely, though by no means wholly, repressed and curbed--of the predominantly formal and elevated diction of the OT."

Ullendorff's article is a shrewd, and remarkably fun piece of work (see the second essay in the volume, "C'est de l'Hébreu pour moi!" a delightful study springing from his discovery that the French expression for the (Shakespearean) "It's Greek to me!" is "It's Hebrew to me!") , but it only scratches the surface. For one thing, he leaves out much of what makes language work: the verbal and deictic systems, the inventory of registers, speech genres, ways of indicating person, status and relationship. In this he is not alone: read some of William Safire's "On Language" columns for a weekly dose of the folk-theory that language is just a bag of words.

In the case of Biblical Hebrew, casting a wider grammatical net may catch only an even greater sense of vertigo, because while translations generally render the Bible into one type of English, Biblical Hebrew itself is not linguistically uniform. Ullendorff could as well have spoken of "shards" as of a "fragment." Reading along one encounters not just different sets of vocabulary and spellings, but even different verbal systems that appear to handle tense, mood and aspect in at least three different ways. Scholars have therefore long argued for at least three types of Hebrew: Archaic (usually said to be exemplified by Exodus 15, Deuteronomy 32, and Judges 5, the "Song of the Sea," the "Song of Moses," and the "Song of Deborah," each marked as poetry (Hebrew uses related terms for these, different derivatives of the root sh-y-r), Standard (usually taken as the bulk of the Torah plus Joshua through II Kings), and Late (Chronicles, Ester, Ezra-Nehemiah).

Yet though composed of shards, Biblical Hebrew is not broken. This is because the language was integrated by a group of Jewish Aramaic (not Hebrew!)-speaking scholars near the coast of Palestine, in Tiberias, who provided it with vocalization and speech melody based on ancient traditions of their own around the 7th and 8th centuries C.E., somewhere in the neighborhood of 1,500 years after the first texts were probably written down in Standard Biblical Hebrew. What is remarkable about this system of vocalization and cantillation is that it gives far more information than necessary for verbal understanding: one of the things that makes the Tiberian vowel system confusing is that, while it almost always gives enough information to tell different words with identical consonants apart, it is obviously not designed to do that; rather, it's designed to record the exact sounds produced by a tradtionally correct liturgical reader in the synagogue. In other words, it's more like Sanskrit, with its elaborate notation of strictly phonetic phenomena, than it is like the more matter-of-fact Greek or Arabic.

This linguistic fact has interesting consequences for popular things like the study of Midrash and the always blossoming fields of Biblical interpretation. This is because the cantillation marks, rarely taught in Biblical Hebrew class, in fact seem to set forth a set of very precise instructions for prosody; that is, they tell you how to intone and express the content of the text. In an environment where the significance of the text was, to put it mildly, disputed, the Tiberians produced a text that not only could only be read one way, but that tried to turn its readers into human tape recorders, playback machines that ventriloquized God's word.

If this is true, could it tell us new things about what the people behind the Masoretic tradition thought Scripture was? One of the great frustrations in reading a wonderful book like Michael Fishbane's Biblical Interpretation in Ancient Israel is that he never renders explicit what he thinks the scribes' precise notion of the text was--what gave them the right to do the things they did to it? What constraints were they under and how did they conceive of what they were doing? His student Bernard Levinson has taken some major, equally wonderful steps towards figuring out a scribal view of the text in Deuteronomy. But what about the people who put the end result together?

That's for a future time. Now, as I promised, we go back to the Iron Age.

*A rare personal note: the memory in question dates years back, to a cherished moment at the Albright Institute in Jerusalem, sleeping on the floor of the library after reading late into the night and all the buses had stopped running.

ARAMAIC ADDENDUM: Ed Cook quite rightly asks where the curious btdwd' kitchen text can be found. My revered teacher Delbert Roy Hillers edited it with Eleonora Cussini as PAT 2743:8, and they cite an original publication in Syria 1926; it was conveniently republished in Rosenthal's Aramaic Handbook, entry 13 under Palmyrene. Curious readers who examine the original will see that something is indeed being cooked up here, but it is not food :-).

Thursday, January 13, 2005

Is Biblical Hebrew a Language?

I have been reflecting on the linguistic status of ancient Hebrew, in both the Bible and inscriptions, for a while now.

"Is Biblical Hebrew a Language?" was the title of a book and essay of many years ago by the great Ethiopicist and Semitist Edward Ullendorff (for this bibliography, and much more besides, see the treasure trove assembled by Mark S. Smith), and it's a nice way into the question. Rather than arguing that Biblical Hebrew was a priestly hoax on the part of Moses or Ezra (see previous post), he asked a more straightforward question:

Does the vocabulary of the Hebrew Bible give us a full picture of how people spoke in ancient Israel? The lexicon is something around 7,000-8,000 words (in the estimation of the Israeli philologist Hayim Rabin, who should know). Compare the combined vocabulary of Rabbinic and modern Hebrew, closer to 22,000 in a compact dictionary, or the small Penguin English dictionary (40,000).

More strikingly, Ullendorff points out, we have Biblical words for "fork" (mazleg) and "knife" (ma'akhelet), but not "spoon" (kaf today, for which the earliest instance he can find is Mishnaic, despite that spoons turn up in the archaeological record quite early).

In a way, it's even worse than he thinks: the world of ancient West Semitic kitchen terms is a shadowy realm, which one enters at one's own peril. I have no confidence that mazleg, which came to mean "fork," was used that way in Biblical times: it only appears as a priestly tool to move sacrificial meat around, and I Samuel 2:13 specifies that the one in question has "three prongs," which means we can't assume it usually did. Similarly, we find the ma'akhelet doing its horribly gruesome work on the body of a concubine in Judges 19:29, and Abraham takes one to sacrifice his son Isaac in Genesis 22, but we never see it used for food! While not a military implement, the only uses of the ma'akhelet in the Bible are to cut people. And while Ezekiel features a "kitchen" (bet hammevashlim in Ezk 46:24), it is a dark secret of the whole "House of David" inscription controversy that the Palmyrene Aramaic word for "kitchen" is none other than btdwd'!

Not only that, but as Ullendorff (and he is not the first) points out, there isn't even a word for the Hebrew language! Ivrit doesn't turn up til the Wisdom of Ben Sira, and Yehudit "Judean" and sefat Kena'an "the language of Canaan" are rather more specific: they point to dialects and identities below and above the scale of the nation.

So what kind of linguistic picture does Biblical Hebrew form? In the next post, I'll weave together some reflections on the latest critique of Biblical Hebrew's linguistic status as it appears in the work of Ian Young, together with a helpful introduction from Sue Groom and some straightforward wisdom from Jonas Greenfield and Josef Naveh...

Monday, January 10, 2005

Ezra, the Exile, and the Invention of Modern Biblical Criticism

Where did we get the idea that Ezra wrote the Torah, and thus in some way "invented" Israel during the exile? Michael Green, a Chicago philosopher who I have praised for the ways he uses the web to teach, steered me here, where Noel Malcolm describes this idea passing through the head of an 18th-century freethinker:

Also composing a radical critique of Christianity in the 1720s...was the prominent scholar Nicolas Fréret, Secretary of the Académie des Inscriptions et Belles-Lettres in Paris. His 'Lettre de Thrasybule à Leucippe' (a survey of paganism, Judaism and Christianity, written as if by a learned Greek in the first century ad) raises some standard objections to the theory of the Mosaic authorship of the Pentateuch: those books of the Bible contain things that 'can only have been written a long time after the Law-giver', a fact which 'greatly diminishes their authority'. The prophetic books, too, may have been put together only after the events referred to in their so-called prophecies. But Fréret goes further. Cleverly, he turns the tables on the traditional claim that divine revelation was authenticated by prophecies and miracles: he remarks that the Jews were more obedient to God after the return from the Babylonian captivity, despite the lack of miracles, whereas their worst disobedience to God had come in earlier times, when miracles were (allegedly) in plentiful supply. His conclusion is that the miracles had never happened, and that the significant new factor here was that after the captivity the Jewish people had, for the first time, come under the spell of a Scripture which claimed that they had. 'Those miracles . . . were inserted after the event into a history which, as they admit, was compiled by the person—Ezra—who led them back from Babylon, who established their new government, rebuilt their city with the temple of their God, and determined the form of their religion, which had been entirely abolished.'

But who first proposed the idea that "ancient Israel" was the exilic invention of a scribal elite? In a wonderful article, Malcolm explains how the usual idea among radicals, through the 18th century, was that the great manipulator was Moses, who had invented the Israelite religion for political purposes (for the concept of the manipulative elite invention of religion, the great source is of course Machiavelli). But "it took some time, apparently, for writers in the radical tradition to recognize that with the Ezran theory they could have the best of both worlds: they could discredit the authority of Revelation all the more thoroughly, while still retaining the basic idea of politically motivated imposture, merely reassigning it from Moses to Ezra himself"!

Malcolm, a really interesting Hobbes scholar, writes that "while the title of 'founder of modern biblical criticism' is nowadays given sometimes to La Peyrère, sometimes to Spinoza, and sometimes to Simon, it is hardly ever awarded to Hobbes," despite the fact that he seems to have been the first to mention the idea of exilic authorship in print. He argues that the idea was in the air at the middle of the 17th century--

--but the first person to write it down was a Muslim anti-Jewish polemicist named Ibn Hazm in the 11th century! It is in response to this polemica tradition that much early Jewish Bible criticism, such as that of Ibn Ezra, may initially have arisen. The whole article is a revelation, as it were, and anyone interested in what Bible criticism is, and how it got the way it is, will want to read it.

Friday, January 07, 2005

Genesis: Logos or Agon?

One of the best things that can happen in Biblical studies (or anywhere) is when a thoughtful scholar says something weird. By weird, I mean new, something that has not been tested or assimilated into business as usual and that we haven't worked with before. Sometimes this is because they have made a mistake or have a fixed idea, a cookie-cutter methodology or a goofy obsession.

But sometimes, this is because they have a new vision, seeing ancient realities that were shaped differently from the way we envisioned them before. This is when the rest of us have to scramble to decide what we think, whether to accept, reject or rethink this vision, and what the consequences would be.

Based on the books I've read (and I can never read enough in this field!), I would submit that in 2003, the book that did this best in Hebrew Bible was Michael Fishbane's Biblical Myth and Rabbinic Mythmaking (look around on the link for the book at a decent price), and in 2004 that book was Bill Schniedewind's How the Bible Became a Book. If you want to get a sense of the most interesting stuff that might happen in Biblical studies in the next few years you could do worse than to look at these two.

I've been thinking about both of these books lately (one of the reasons I got Bill Schniedewind to speak at my conference), but Fishbane's book in particular raises a crucial problem I want to try and solve. Fishbane's book begins with an analysis of scholarly attempts to explain away mythic imagery in the Bible and Jewish tradition. In a comprehensive and convincing polemic, Fishbane argues that these denials come from a case of denial: that they are apologetic attempts to sanitize a religion--and what's worse, in trying to save ancient Judaism from itself they miss out on much of its true religious vitality and maybe even its theological core.

A case in point, he says, is God's creation of the universe. Since the discovery of the most elaborate Babylonian creation myth, Enuma Elish, scholars have read Genesis 1 alongside it, noting the parallels in theme and organization. But a stark contrast was pointed out: unlike Enuma Elish, which culminates in a dramatic and gory battle between the supreme god and a cosmic monster, there is no battle in Genesis 1: the universe obeys him completely. Scholars highlighted this difference, using it to show that Israel's strict monotheism had expunged (or, in Jacob Milgrom's rather mythic language, "eviscerated") myth.

But it's not that simple, writes Fishbane:

"it bears recalling that the creation account in Genesis 1 was not always the opening or foundational narrative of a 'Bible.' In fact, many other accounts and apostrophes of the creation circulated in ancient Israel, and some of them were even recited in prayers preserved in the book of Psalms. Among these, there are several examples in which a divine combat against the sea is featured..."

Among the texts Fishbane is thinking of here are the alternative creation accounts, both violent and nonviolent, of Psalms 74, 89 and 104, Job 37:14-27 and 38:2-18, and Proverbs 8.

Accordingly, the complete biblical evidence seems rather to indicate two different models of the creation. One of these we shall designate the 'logos model', since it particularly or primarily emphasizes a verbal creation...Genesis 1 is the pre-eminent example of this mythic type, with its theology of an absolutely sovereign creator who speaks and shapes dormant or unresistant matter into effective (viable) existence and order. Over against this type we may place the 'agon model', which gives dominant emphasis to acts of strife and subjugation at the beginning of the world; and particularly since it is God's victory over antagonistic creatures of the sea that marks His great sovereignty and might."

But what if you need logos to have an agon? The problem is this: given that Fishbane has seen something new, and true, in Biblical myth that is expressed in his logos/agon opposition, what does it mean that the two most famous Ancient Near Easten combat myths, Enuma Elish's Marduk v. Tiamat and the Ugaritic Baal epic's Baal v. Yam, are actually examples of both models at once? Does this fusion extend to the Bible too? If the two ideal types Fishbane proposes are, in reality, a good deal more mixed, is there any other way of seeing the common features of the diverse creation accounts?

Of course, as a humble Semitic philologist, rather than theology I'm just going to look at the grammar. My hope is, building on Fishbane's insight, to discover something neither he nor I have quite seen yet.

Tuesday, January 04, 2005

Biblical Archaeology from Scratch III: How It Got Like This

And now, what I see as the modern side of the underlying problem. This is that, to put it bluntly, you can dig up all the artifacts you want, even finding something that looks to you very much like an ancient Israelite state, with scribes, monotheism, and so on, and you may find that you have not really proven what you want to prove. The Bible may be authentic (and here I think the "minimalists" who want to falsify it are still buying into the same assumptions as their opposite numbers), but is that enough to make it Scripture? Does that help us decide if it's the authoritative word of God?

It never fails to amaze me, the incisiveness with which Thomas Hobbes, who helped inaugurate both modern Biblical Studies and modern political theory, already saw the limits of both:

It is a question much disputed between the divers sects of Christian religion: From whence the Scriptures derive their authority? Which question is also propounded sometimes in other terms, as, How we know them to be the word of God? or, Why we believe them to be so? And the difficulty of resolving it ariseth chiefly from the improperness of the words wherein the question itself is couched. For it is believed on all hands that the first and original author of them is God; and consequently the question disputed is not that. Again, it is manifest that none can know they are God's word (though all true Christians believe it) but those to whom God himself hath revealed it supernaturally; and therefore, the question is not rightly moved of our knowledge of it. Lastly, when the question is propounded of our belief, because some are moved to believe for one, and others for other reasons, there can be rendered no one general answer for them all. The question truly stated is: By what authority they are made law?
Leviathan 33.21

What Hobbes seems to me to be arguing is that the question of the authority of the Bible is the wrong one: when you think it through, he says, it doesn't matter whether it is the word of God. He comes to this rather counterintuitive conclusion by breaking down the question of the authority of Scripture into two things people actually mean when they say this: 1) How we know the scriptures to be the word of God? And 2), Why we believe them to be so? He says these are the wrong questions: "For it is believed on all hands that the first and original author of them is God," so everybody believes it. Again, "it is manifest that none can know they are God's word (though all true Christians believe it) but those to whom God himself hath revealed it supernaturally;” so nobody knows it. “The question truly stated is: By what authority they are made law?” The question is why—or if—anyone obeys it. That is, the fact that they may come from God is irrelevant: as humanly promulgated documents, texts are all alike: the scriptures can have no power to compel assent; it takes a state to make them law. So there is nothing inherent in scripture that makes it scripture: the state’s decision to compel obedience is the only difference that matters.

At the point commonly recognized as one of the founding moments of Biblical studies, Hobbes makes a series of deft moves to shut it down, to prove the debate would be fruitless. He argues that all the philology in the world won’t change the essential fact that the text is just a text. Nothing in the text, says Hobbes, can prove it’s the word of God. No matter what history lies behind the Bible, the end result, the document it produced, is just like any other document.

Now, Hobbes' political theory also assumes a theory of language, which is that all texts do by themselves is communicate information.* In this theory, all laws have the same status vis a vis the state: they need someone with control over violence to enforce them. So the question of authorship is moot: it’s very interesting, but it doesn’t change anything.

This, Hobbes would say, is the boat that Biblical studies missed: once church and state are separated, the Bible is de facto not authoritative any more, and de facto is all that matters. Once we accept the theory that all texts are the same—that communication through writing is necessary, but invisible and functionally uniform, the question of what the Bible did and does is off the table.

Interestingly, there is a thread in Weber’s theory of the state that casts a radically different light on the whole thing. But I'll leave that for my book.

*That is, if I understand it correctly. Today John Kelly pointed me to some work by Quentin Skinner which argues that Hobbes actually has a whole semiotic theory that's different from the two early Modern poles usually posited, at least in anthropological linguistics, of Locke and Herder. We shall see!

Biblical Archaeology from Scratch II: The Real Problem

We are finally talking about the plague of forged Israelite documents, and we should be. Sunlight is a powerful disinfectant.

But I think the real problem might go deeper. Because there is a fundamental difficulty in the way we imagine, and thereby attempt to dig up, ancient Israel. Because of both historical facts and inherent conceptual problems, this enterprise might be doomed to fail in the terms it has set itself. As long as the burning desire to authenticate or falsify Biblical documents exists, as long as the debate is cast in these terms, problems like this will continue to come up. So another question we could ask is, why is the debate cast in these terms, of maximalism vs. minimalism, history vs. ideology, authenticity vs. forgery? Why is the question we're so fixated on--how did it get to be this way--and is this quest somehow already set up for failure?

First of all, the ancient side of the problem: archaeology has not recovered the stark opposition between Israelites and others that the Biblical text proclaims. Excavations show that Syro-Palestinian material culture varied mainly by region and not ethnicity: Indeed, scholarship now views ethnic group membership as a result of deliberate choice and reflection by the members themselves, as well as others who recognize them. This is the crucial methodological contribution of Ian Hodder’s Symbols in Action, a series of studies in which archaeologists interpreted the recent material remains of a culture while the natives were still around to talk to. Able to ask what the excavated objects actually meant to their users, Hodder found that the ethnic significance of objects was determined in conversation and interaction, not set in stone, nor inherent in the things themselves. In other words, the bare physical forms of the artifacts were not as important as the ethnic interpretation their users gave them through language.

This goes against the long-standing “Culture Area” assumption that ethnic and linguistic divisions should line up with material culture--that we could dig up Israel as a tight, coherent national unit, which would correspond with people who, uniformly, spoke Hebrew, were members of an Israelite religion, believed in Davidic monarchy, and thought their ancestors came from Egypt. But Hodder’s theory has been borne out in Syro-Palestinian archaeology by studies of the distribution of items that were once thought to be taxonomically Israelite, such as the legendary four-room house and collar-rim jar. The spread of these items into places like Jordan correlates with geography and economy, not political or ethnic boundaries.

In a crucial recent article, Elizabeth Bloch-Smith points out that “not a single ‘Israelite’ trait identified by proponents of the Culture Area approach—pillared houses, collar-rim store jars, or pig abstinence--was exclusive to a conservatively delimited Iron I highland Israel…In general, Iron I highland architecture, diet, material culture, subsistence adaptation, language, and even cultic features continued Late Bronze Age practices or were attested in neighboring regions.”

The issue is not that the Culture Area approach did not produce the expected result here; the issue is that the result it expects is the excavation of a nation. Both rooted in and working to reinforce a distinctly modern concept--a tightly defined, homogenous nation-state, this archaeology’s “methods appeared to enable a clear-cut territorial boundary to be drawn around discrete culture assemblages, thereby delimiting the object of study as that of a distinct ethnic culture.” As the scholar of Nationalism Anthony Smith writes, this “presentation of a highly concrete and bounded territorial, archaeological culture seemed destined to clinch the nationalist image of a world of discrete and unique nations, each occupying an historic homeland, and each possessing its own shared memories and public culture, single economy and common laws.”

I should be clear: I don't see much purpose in asking whether an ancient Israel (as well as an ancient Judah, and an ancient Ephriam, which is what ancient Judeans like to call those northerners presumptuous enough to claim to be "Israel"!) existed. The question I'm excited about pursuing is whether it existed on our terms, and, especially, how you could recover the way it existed on their terms. The point of my book is to explore this through ancient writing. Provenanced ancient writing!

Last installment: the modern side of the problem, or, how it got this way.

Further Reading

Bloch-Smith, “Israelite Ethnicity in Iron I: Archaeology Preserves what is Remembered and what is Forgotten in Israel’s History” JBL 122 (2003) 401-25. The quote comes from p. 411

John S. Holladay, “Four-Room House” in Eric M. Meyers, ed. The Oxford Encylopedia of Archaeology in the Near East, vol. 2 (New York: Oxford University Press; 1997) 337-342

Hodder, Symbols in Action: Ethnoarchaeological Studies of Material Culture (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1982)

A.D. Smith, “Authenticity, Antiquity and Archaeology” in Nations and Nationalism 7 (2002). The the quote comes from p. 442

Monday, January 03, 2005

The Passion of the Christ, or, Mechanical Reproduction Speaks in Tongues

Just finished my paper for the Interdisciplinary Christianities Workshop. If you're around the U of Chicago and have any kind of serious academic interest in these things, we're discussing it Friday, January 7th, at 3:30 in Haskell 101.

The paper connects one of my strict professional areas, the structure and relationship of ancient Aramaic and Hebrew, with some of what you could call my hobbies: semiotics, political theology, and the sparks that fly from their alchemy with media forms. If that sounds too abstruse for you, ask why the Hebrew Bible is in Hebrew, or why the Passion might as well have been in Chinese: what are the properties of a revealed text? Is it written differently? In a specific language? Is it still revealed when it is translated or paraphrased? Does it have any inherent properties at all, or does it, or someone else, just say it was revealed?

I'll post one of the fun parts (from part 2, "The Hermeneutic Wars"):

But [The Passion of the Christ] and its response can also be placed in a more specifically American history of concern over Bible reading in the context of mass media. Peter Gutjahr’s An American Bible describes a decline in Biblical literacy that concerned Protestants during the 19th century, when,

“a number of authors, publishers and clergymen turned to transforming the Bible’s story into less sacred forms of print to turn American readers once again to the Bible. As narrative forms such as the novel became more popular with the American reading public, American Protestants decided to commingle scriptural truth and fictional fancy in order to attract their countrymen to the Bible's message. Perhaps the most popular manifestation of this mixture was the nineteenth-century genre of the lives of Christ, a genre that included titles such as The Book of Mormon, The Prince of the House of David and Ben-Hur. As Americans were introduced to increasingly fictionalized lives of Christ, they were given both a new way to imagine themselves as characters in the Bible's story, as well as a means to avoid the density and complexity of that story. Consequently, an attempt to emphasize the Bible's story resulted in de-emphasizing the Bible itself.”

David Lyle Jeffrey, Provost of the Baptist university Baylor, describes the further, equally market-driven fragmentation of the Biblical text in the late 20th century. Citing the statistic that there are now 450 different translations or paraphrases of the Bible available, Jeffery explored the implications for Church communities no longer having a unitary text:

“It makes collective Bible study a very difficult task: ‘That’s not what my translation says.’ The authority of the Bible is being complicated if not compromised for readers—whose Bible? Which version? How do I know mine is accurate? It raises a series of questions that the church is not well disposed to solve because of our monolingual culture, resulting in a diminishment of authority of text.

One used to say that American Christians ‘knew the Bible by heart.’ The memorization of the text is now made more difficult by the variety of translations used, sometimes within the same sermon. What it does is diffuse in some fundamental way the power of the text to shape culture”.

One of the most popular, and problematic, solutions to the decline in textual knowledge among American Protestants, many of whom can no longer understand the King James Version, is to produce paraphrases.

“You get Bibles for teenagers that are paraphrases rather than translations, they may highlight certain passages by paraphrasing them in such a way to make them seem ‘cool,’” the result being “a Bible adequated so much in the direction of the reader that it may actually not resemble under any kind of linguistic scrutiny…the text that is being translated.”

Thus, even as some express concern, and others enthusiasm, about a culture war, the stakes are changing: evangelicals worry about a way to gain direct contact with the original Word of God, as the text that conveys it is fragmented by the marketing that promotes it.

The conversation between Jeffery and Gutjahr, which I heard on Chicago's WBEZ, was excellent, and anyone interested in how the Bible is read in America today would enjoy listening to it here .