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.