Monday, August 01, 2011

Judean Scholasticism and Religion on the Ground

Should the literary nature of the Priestly corpus prevent us from connecting it to ancient Near Eastern religion on the ground? A generation ago, the sober answer would have been, "yes." Nobody had assessed the overall nature of the Hebrew epigraphic corpus, and we had made only desultory comparisons between the editorial character of P and that of other ancient Near Eastern ritual corpora. But now the answer may be different.

Scholars of ancient religion have long wriggled on the horns of a conundrum: the edited, Hellenistic manuscripts of Exodus, Leviticus and Numbers provide overwhelmingly more explicit detail about ritual than any other set of texts -- or artifacts -- from the ancient Near East. For scholars of the Hebrew Bible, the temptation has been to triangulate a social location for these texts--the closest recent readers (Milgrom, Knohl, Schwartz) have tended to locate them in the later Iron Age (IIb). This fits well with the only reliable external evidence for literary activity in Classical Biblical Hebrew--the epigraphic record, which makes clear that the only time that this variety was systematically written was between the 8th and early 6th centuries BCE. Biblical texts from after this period show an increasing mix of Aramaic, Late Biblical Hebrew, and eventually, Persian and Greek features.

But this conclusion is beset by two potential problems, one which has been widely recognized and one that has not. First, the narrative frame of the ritual texts themselves locates them in a mythic period of folk migration, wilderness wandering, miraculous divine combat, and supernatural revelation. If this narrative is mapped onto the circumstances of Late Bronze Age history (as both maximalist and minimalist scholars of the last few generations did, each for their own ends), the situation of their writing becomes both implausible and unverifiable.

The second problem, which I have not seen fully recognized, is that of their historically unusual editorial character. Now, the literary distinctiveness of the Priestly corpus, by itself, is widely recognized among both European and Israeli scholars. What does not seem to have been done, except in a piecemeal (if provocative) fashion by scholars such as Cohen, Fishbane and Levine, is analysis of the editorial character of the Priestly corpus in comparison with the editorial character of Mesopotamian, Hittite/Hurrian, Ugaritic, or Egyptian texts. When this is done on a broader scale than that of isolated colophons (Fishbane), secrecy rubrics (Cohen, though see now the rich analysis of Lenzi), or comparisons of isolated biblical pericopes with individual Mesopotamian or Ugaritic ritual texts (Levine), it emerges that the Priestly rituals of the Torah represent a level of compilation, categorization, and reorganization unique in the Levant. And what is more, when it is taken into account that these texts are not merely rituals but temple rituals, catalogues of physical sacrificial acts, their level of systematization emerges as unique in the entire ancient Near East. While Mesopotamian ritual texts such as Maqlû, Šurpu, the various Namburbi series, and Utukkū Lemnūtu were also serialized and systematized, these were all exorcistic and heavily verbal rituals for court ritual experts (āšipu's); none are sacrificial rituals for temples, none designed for priests. Similarly, there appear to be no Hittite, Hurrian, or Egyptian corpora that not only edit together but also categorize and catalog multiple rituals for daily, monthly, annual, and ad hoc circumstantial situations.

The second problem strikes me as the more serious, and interesting. The location of ritual instructions in some sort of mythic narrative is one of the few editorial features of the Priestly texts that actually does have a very clear Near Eastern scholastic parallel, in the well-studied Marduk-Ea theme of the Mesopotamian incantations (see Falkenstein, Haupttypen, Cunningham Deliver Me From Evil!, and for a convenient summary Sanders, "A Historiography of Demons"). While it is plausible, though unprovable, that there was a historical figure like Moses (for the most detailed responsible reconstruction within the limits of current evidence see Na'aman JANER 2011), these literary texts' ascription of Priestly ritual to a historical Moses is in and of itself no more of a historical problem than Utukkū Lemnūtu's ascription of exorcistic ritual to a historical Ea: it is a literary and ritual claim.

Some scholars, especially in recent decades European ones, have attempted to solve the problem of the Priestly literature's complex editing with the chronological assumption that such compilation is more plausible in the Babylonian, Persian or even Hellenistic periods. But such assumptions have precisely the same problems as a priori assumptions of the texts' early date; they do not address the distinctive editorial character of the texts.

To advance on this problem, we would need two things: first, concrete evidence for the nature and cultural location of a Judean scholastic practice and second, ways of connecting specific Priestly texts with Levantine ritual and editorial practices--not just in history but in space. It is in this way that we may be closer to a plausible, three-dimensional view--though we are certainly not there yet.

Next: The Covenant Code, the Priestly Blessing, and Judean Scholasticism

Friday, June 03, 2011

Scribal Culture's Shadow Tradition

Some of us grew up in schools and learned to read from school texts, studied thousands more of them, and then went on to make a living writing them and teaching them to others. In, you know, school.

Not shockingly, we tend to imagine texts as by and for school. Those of us who study ancient texts may then even offer ancient school (with or without little red shingled roof, and even with or without buildings) as the key to understanding their nature and purpose. And sometimes it is. Naturally, this solution is more attractive if your own formation and way of life is based on it.

But sometimes it isn't. For example, the alphabet led a diverse life in the Iron Age. Almost nobody who talks about the uses of literacy mentions that most alphabetic texts from archaic Greece are hardly educational or monumental. They're mainly about drinking and sex, and in Hexameter. Greek speakers adapted the Phoenician alphabet to write skillfuly but casually.

And almost nobody talks about the full range of West Semitic uses in the second half of the first millennium B.C.E., where the evidence of alphabetic writing is even more diverse! North Arabianist M.A.C. MacDonald points out that

Literacy seems to have been extraordinarily widespread, not only among the settled populations but also among the nomads. Indeed, the scores of thousands of graffiti on the rocks of the Syro-Arabian desert suggest that it must have been almost universal among the latter. By the Roman period, it is probable that a higher proportion of the population in this region was functionally literate than in any other area of the ancient world.
- "Ancient North Arabian" in Woodard, ed., Cambridge Encyclopedia of the World’s Ancient Languages

The existing evidence is quite clear: North Arabian literacy was both more widespread and more casual than in the Levant.

[T]he major obstacle to a paleographical analysis of the Ancient North Arabian inscriptions is the fact that the vast majority of them are informal texts written by innumerable individuals who learned to write, not in schools, but casually from a companion, and whose letter-forms were not therefore part of a slowly evolving tradition, but represent a multiplicity of individual choices. An indication of this is provided by the four Safaitic abecedaries which have been discovered so far. Each is in a different letter-order and none of them bears any relation to the inherited orders of the Northwest and South Semitic alphabets. The letters have simply been arranged according to the writers’ differing perceptions of similarity in their shapes. By contrast, the only known
Dadanitic abecedary is in the South Semitic letter-order, while the unique Hismaic example more or less follows the Northwest Semitic order, but with significant differences which suggest that it was unfamiliar to the writer.
-- MacDonald, "Ancient North Arabian," and in greater detail, “On the uses of writing in ancient Arabia and the role of palaeography in Studying
them.” Arabian Archaeology and Epigraphy 15 (2004).

When we think about the uses of writing in the first-millennium BCE Levant, we tend to begin with the big, famous corpora of Mesopotamian and Egyptian scholastic life. But we need to be aware that there was a widely distributed, and in some ways more important "stream of tradition" that was nothing at all like the schools of the city-states and empires. How do you do the paleography of this shadow tradition? What was its relationship to the cultures and polities of the period? And as passionately as some of us are drawn to big, strong empires, does the evidence suggest that texts like the Gezer, Zayit and Qeiyafa inscriptions are closer to this type of shadow tradition than they are to, say, the vast and carefully organized Mesopotamian compendia of omens and signs being written during the same period? I suspect these questions will only become more important and interesting in coming years.

Saturday, May 07, 2011

Back to the Sources

The only way to do social or cultural theory in Near Eastern Studies is to go back and read the original theorists, alongside the textual sources. There's no middle ground. A survey or summary can show you where to look, but reading one instead of Weber, Benveniste or Lacan is a waste of your time. And just as you can only catch epigraphically unsound readings and get new readings by looking at the inscriptions and manuscripts yourself, you can only avoid a cookie-cutter reading of Weber on bureaucracy and come to your own understanding by working through the whole article in Economy and Society.

Monday, April 18, 2011

"In reality getting the job is not even half the battle"

Chris Brady with some sensible words on the fraught subject of tenure. Grad students: remember, these are the kind of problems we want to have.

Inauthentic Experience

Scholars of early Jewish and Christian mysticism have often seen personal religious experience as a kind of gold standard for visionary texts. According to this assumption, autobiographical first person narrative would be the truest or most convincing evidence that someone really experienced a heavenly journey. Pseudonymity, by contrast, is a difficult and confusing mediating layer--a mask.

We can put the problem more rigorously: In linguistic terms, the question is how author (the person who created the text's content) and principal (the person who takes responsibility for the text) are aligned: are they the same? If not, how do they relate? In biblical scholarship, for example, the question of the authorship of Jeremiah or Ezekiel is about how and when author and principal align. But people who study autobiography and memoir have long recognized that the alignment of author and principal does not make a text less literary, or true.

And now, this interesting study of 40 people who confessed under interrogation to crimes they did not actually commit: 'Seven described their involvement in the crime as coming to them in a "dream" or "vision."' If one is cast in a certain role--say, of criminal who has not confessed, and is under great pressure to do so, one may have an "authentic" experience. But is it less mediated, or truer?

Thursday, March 10, 2011

Apocalyptic Science?

In his stunningly incisive and occasionally slipshod 1947 dissertation Occidental Eschatology, Jacob Taubes makes a strong case for how Hegel and Marx stand in the lineage of biblical prophecy and apocalyptic. He defines apocalypticism as the first scientific approach to history--with disturbing consequences for our histories of both science and history: "The science of apocalypticism can be defined as the exact numerical calculation of the end of time." Why?

The events of the world are written on the face of the divine clock, so the point is to follow the course of world history to determine the hour of the aeon. Apocalypticism is the foundation which makes universal history possible.*

Taubes' insights are too good to leave as provocative but unjustified claims. Since his time we've gotten an immense amount of new data; we even understand some of it. And based on my reading of biblical Priestly, early Jewish Enochic, and Babylonian scholarly literature, I am becoming convinced that Taubes was right in crucial ways. Next month I will be exploring the issue of apocalyptic science, and its connection to the biblical and Near Eastern foundations of universal history, in the company of a bunch of great scholars, including many more eminent than me. Early next month, ISAW will host a conference I am co-organizing with Jonathan Ben-Dov on Ancient Jewish Sciences and the History of Knowledge.

Take a look and please RSVP if you're interested--we'd love to see you there!

*Occidental Eschatology. tr. David Ratmoko (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2009 [1947]) 32-33

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.