Wednesday, December 08, 2010

Social Theory at the Barrel of an Auto-9

The moment I really got into social theory was when I realized it could kill people, at least in action movies.

In college I took classes on Greek Heroes and Oral Literature with Greg Nagy, the person who showed me that social theory could play together with ancient texts. He didn't impose theory on Classics to show he was more sophisticated than Homer, but to bring out Homer's distinctiveness and, if I can say this, blood—the disturbing, rooted vitality of an ancient document that our careful, pristine treatment can bleed dry.

For me the definitive Nagy moment was when he'd explained Performative Utterances in class, those sentences that do something precisely by talking about it, like “I now pronounce you man and wife.” He was showing Robocop, of all things, to illustrate concepts of the hero.

The background: "In a dystopian future, the city of Detroit, Michigan is on the verge of collapse due to financial ruin and unchecked crime" (you can't make this stuff up) The city has outsourced its police force to Omni Consumer Products and its corrupt president, Dick Jones, who is also on the city council. Robocop is a veteran cop killed in a drug raid and resurrected by OCP into a man-machine hybrid with a big gun. Instead of a conscience he has four rules programmed in. The first three are to serve the public trust, protect the innocent and uphold the law. And there's a classified fourth directive: he can't harm any member of OCP. But we find out that the big problems in the city are actually being caused by Jones himself, who has sent his evil all-machine robots to kill Robocop, and played him a video death sentence.

Robocop survives, and with the death sentence still implanted in his flash memory, fights his way to the top of the city council's skyscraper and plugs himself into their meeting room computer's USB to unmask Jones in wide-screen before the whole council. Jones puts a gun to the mayor's head and demands ransom and an escape route. Robocop, despite his massive artillery, is paralyzed by the fourth directive. But then he gets an idea. Turning to the mayor, he asks, “don't you have something to say to him?” The mayor turns to his captor: “Dick, you're fired!” Robocop is freed to pull the trigger, and the impact propels the villain through a huge window and 100 stories down to earth in a blizzard of glass.

And that was my first experience of blown away by a linguistic concept.

--this discussion of violent action movies and philology is an outtake from a great interview Doug Mangrum did with me; check it out!

Thursday, November 18, 2010


As a lead-up to the Society of Biblical Literature meeting, we at Serving the Word are unboxing ideas that have been rattling around our head. Up next: An interview with Douglas Mangrum at Biblia Hebraica, plus How Robocop blowing someone out a plate glass window taught me social theory!

Scribes and Craftsmen, Inscriptions and Audiences in the Iron Age Levant: Some Modest Proposals

"All writing has the capacity to be both looked at and read, to be present as material and to function as the sign of an absent meaning." Words are never simply "ideas"; they are ideas anchored to and expressed through things in the material world. That "thing" may be the human voice, or it may be a set of stone tablets, but it is, somehow, a medium and thus, in some sense, material. ... we cannot divorce the significance of a sign from its material qualities because, as Jerome McGann stresses, "language is always materialized and embodied in one form or another."

--Matthew Engelke, A Problem of Presence: Beyond Scripture in an African Church, 10-11

For the Ugaritic god of craftsmanship and magic, Kotharu-wa-Hasisu, words were material things. Maker of bows and palaces splendid enough for gods to crave, he had impeccable credentials as an armorer. But in the Baal epic's most famous battle scene he literally bludgeons the sea-god Yammu to death with a pair of sentences. The gigantic warrior Baal stands passively as Kotharu activates the incantations with a word; they spin in his hands and slam into his enemy. The terrifying Yammu, who had intimidated all the gods, is felled by a pair of phrases— self-referential ones at that.

Today we work in the opposite way from Kotharu, treating language as basically immaterial, only accidentally borne by inscriptions and ostraca. Philologists typically publish texts without much analysis of what they look like, prying apart scribe and inscriber. When we interpret the inscriptions we separate them from the objects and contexts that bear them. We also do not go into much depth about where they are, and what that means: Geographically, we tend to give little thought to the precise distribution of texts across landscapes and regions. And no standard edition of a corpus of Iron Age linear alphabetic texts presents the words as their ancient audiences saw them: as physical, visual things in space.

Hence, a set of modest proposals, or theses nailed to the door of the internet, on the human relationships that made our inscriptions.

1. There is no history of writing, only a history of genres of writing. Because genres are the most basic way that communication is socially organized, it is difficult to make any meaningful statement about writing's use without considering its markers of relationship to human social organization.
2. The idea of a strict division of labor between literate scribes and illiterate craftsmen has little to no support in the Iron Age IIb Levant. Their relationships played out differently among different communities, and when we attend to the distinct evidence of each site we can expect to find different configurations. The people who cast texts in linguistic form and the people who chiseled them into physical forms were sometimes one and the same, sometimes worked closely together, and sometimes had nothing to do with one another.
3. The starkest example of an inscription carved for the carvers themselves is the Siloam tunnel inscription, a well-composed and beautifully incised monument to the work of anonymous stonecutters. Nobody but craftsmen and technicians would ever have seen this text, unique in the entire architectural history of the ancient Near East in being an anonymous building inscription. Beginning, “this is the tunnel, and this is the story of the tunnel,” it is quite literally a signature on a massive work of stonecutting.
4. Examples of close coordination between text-composer and image-carver might be found in the inscriptions from Zinjirli, where the same artistic techniques are used to produce both words and images in one well-organized visual space. Yet this still does not tell us whether the carvers could read, or collaborated with scribes on a carefully prepared wax tablet. Certainly the languages of Zinjrli inscriptions were not directly determined by local speech. Identified by Dennis Pardee as representing several related dialects of Ya'udic Aramaic, the history of alphabetic writing at this site points to bigger problems. Beginning with Phoenician and ending with standard Aramaic, the different texts may instead represent different choices. The variety within Ya'udic suggests not several dialects but multiple attempts at adapting one local variety to a regional Aramaic standard. Like the surprisingly varied representations of the dead, the languages of the inscriptions may also be the result of negotiations between patrons and craftsmen, and vary from instance to instance based on local desires: custom cars, not mp3s.
5. The near-total disconnect between image-maker and scribe may be found in the text wrapped around the Tel Fekheriye statue. Its two bilingual dedications to Hadad, themselves internally hybrid, seem to either enrobe or deface the ruler's image, whose presence they carefully point out in words strikingly cognate with the biblical terms for the image and likeness of God.
6. “Dialects” may be as much art objects as individual monuments and images. This does not mean that they are not vital sources of information for language, but that the grammar of an inscription is no more of a tape recording of a local dialect than the image on a monument is a snapshot of its patron. In the Iron Age Levant, despite invaluable work on dialect geography, there are disturbing ways that dialect is not geographical.
7. In a world where to read is to publish and “readers” may include anyone within earshot, the concept of “literacy” may be worse than useless. We should seriously consider abandoning it in favor of more concrete and illuminating ways to talk about how people used writing.
--more modest proposals to come--

Monday, July 19, 2010

Cuneiform Law from the Hazor Tablet Room?

from Amnon Ben-Tor, Sharon Zuckerman and Wayne Horowitz:

The Selz Foundation Hazor Excavations in Memory of Yigael Yadin have recovered two fragments of a cuneiform tablet preserving portions of a law code at Hazor.

The text parallels portions of the famous Law Code of Hammurabi, and, to a certain extent even the Biblical “tooth for a tooth”. The team is presently working its way down towards a monumental structure dating to the Bronze Age, where more tablets are expected to be found.

The tablet is currently being studied at the Hebrew University. More details to follow as soon as possible...

There was always good reason to believe there was a tablet room there, and it looks like they're digging right above it now. What's at stake? Among the Late Bronze Age cuneiform texts from Israel-Palestine are several exemplars of distinctively "Western" variants of the second-millennium "stream of tradition" in which scribes were trained. Until now, every fragment unearthed has represented a local version, which diverges greatly or subtly from the standard Mesopotamian versions. Even if they, God willing, find hundreds of tablets, it still won't give us a complete picture because there are major LBA sites like Megiddo from which we have almost nothing preserved. But at a minimum, more about the relationships with mainstream Mesopotamian culture will be revealed: we may finally get a real picture of how distinctive the cuneiform culture of the Southern Levant really was! And at a maximum? Anything could happen.

Of course, if it is indeed Late Bronze Age it may not tell us anything more about whether or not the Covenant Code is really a late Iron Age subversion of the Laws of Hammurabi, as David Wright has recently argued. More on this (a good while) later.

Sunday, July 18, 2010

Hebrew's Early Ancestors and the Beginnings of International Relations: A Context for the Jerusalem Fragment

The Amarna letters come from a diplomatic archive dating to the mid-14th-century B.C.E. First discovered by locals in 1887 in Tell el-Amarna in Egypt, they represent the majority of 381 tablets from the royal headquarters of the Egyptian Pharaohs Amenophis III and his son Akhenaten (the famous monotheistic heretic king immortalized in Freud's brilliant fantasy, Moses and Monotheism)

The newly discovered Jerusalem fragment may be a century older or later than the Amarna letters. But because they represent such a rich body of written evidence from the Late Bronze Age Levant, they provide some context for this intriguing scrap--indeed, in addition to the tantalizing hope of more fragments, maybe the best thing this discovery can do is direct us back to these remarkable texts, which still have more to tell us.

My teacher Raymond Westbrook called them the beginnings of international relations because for the first time we see a single complex political system spanning the entire ancient Near East, from the far reaches of Anatolia through Mesopotamia and the Levant down to Egypt. Its cosmopolitanism is signaled by the fact that the system is centered on Egypt but almost all communication is written in Babylonian. We see new "superpowers" like Assyria push their way onto the stage and established ones like Babylon struggle to keep their status. We see remarkable spectacles of excess and decay: While the established powers make jaw-droppingly lavish demands for shipments of each others' gold, doctors, and daughters, the little powers of the Levant protest that the empire is slipping through the Pharoah's grasp, falling prey to conspiracies and bandits. The most abundant of this corpus of protests is the writing of Rib-Addi of Byblos, who has been called a Late Bronze Age Job for his relentless poetic outcries against injustice--though the god he addressed was the Egyptian Pharoah.

But to me as a linguist and student of Hebrew, the most interesting thing about the Amarna letters is the language of these protests. The letters from the Levant are written in a remarkable way, using Babylonian (that is, a type of Akkadian) script and vocabulary but a great deal of Canaanite word order and forms. These "Canaano-Akkadian" texts are our first documents written in a grammar ancestral to Hebrew. William Moran, the greatest American scholar of the Amarna letters, produced a complete and reliable translation which is the starting point for anyone who wants to study them for themselves.

They are also the source of an extremely interesting linguistic controversy. Scholars debate whether Canaano-Akkadian was a language anyone spoke, or whether it was even a language in the usual sense. After Anson Rainey's monumental work put the philology and grammar of the texts on a solid new footing, the most important linguistic study has been by the Israeli scholar Shlomo Izre’el. Izre'el argued that most of the letters represent a mixed language (in some ways like Haitian Creole, also based on the vocabulary from one language--French--with a different grammar). He finds evidence that it was spoken by a small group of people—the scribes of the letters. But he also pointed to remarkable diversity in the letters’ relation to language: some reflect local dialect differences, but at least a few were purely mental notes to the scribe, never intended to be spoken. I have argued that the letters’ grammar does not neatly fit the cross-linguistic profile of mixed languages, which come from situations of bilingual speech, not writing.

This debate continues as I write. Eva von Dassow established a new direction in the texts’ study by viewing them as the expression of a sharp break between writing and language. She argued that the texts were composed purely in Canaanite, but encoded in Babylonian vocabulary and writing. Rather than being read, syllable by syllable, as Babylonian words with Canaanite grammar, the Babylonian signs would be decoded and read out, entirely in Canaanite. Izre'el is currently preparing a new statement on the language of the Levantine texts, responding to the arguments that von Dassow and I have made.

For the Jerusalem fragment, the take-home point is that the Levant in the Late Bronze Age was a very cosmopolitan world. While the fragment may be a century earlier than the Amarna texts--from a time when the Levant was being (re)conquered by Egypt and Hurrian mercenaries--or a century later, at the time when the great Canaanite myths of Ugarit were being written down--this world of multiple languages and cultures will have been part of its context. My Johns Hopkins colleague Christopher Rollston has an excellent blog post that provides an overview, along with important notes on the reading of the tablet from two of the world's greatest experts on the language of this time period, John Huehnergard and Wilfred van Soldt. For what I consider to be the single reliable piece of linguistic evidence about the fragment, and the six texts that can tell us about its general political context, see my posts below.

Saturday, July 17, 2010

(Relatively) Clear New Linguistic Light on the Jerusalem Fragment

Grammatical analysis shows that the new fragment cannot plausibly have been written by the scribe who wrote any of the other contemporary Jerusalem letters. This is because the one clearly recognizable verb in the Jerusalem fragment is in a different dialect from that of the existing Jerusalem letters from Amarna. If this verb is any guide, the scribe of the new fragment had significantly different speech and/or schooling from the scribe of the previously known letters.

Everything posted about the text so far has pointed to the uncertain aspects of the text: genre, contents, exact dating, exact nature of the sign-forms, restoration of the few visible signs. This is absolutely right. Delbert Hillers, the man who taught me Semitic philology, warned us to start from what was most certain to avoid the trap of obscurum per obscurius, “explaining the obscure with the even more obscure.”

If so, this new discovery can't tell us anything much about the language and culture of its writer. But one crucial, and telling, grammatical point has not yet been made clear.

In his thorough study of the script and language of the Jerusalem letters, William Moran, the old master of Amarna studies, pointed out a pattern in the grammar of the letters which formed a remarkable contrast with the other letters from the region of Syria-Palestine:

“Certainly the most striking feature of the Jerusalem scribe's language, though so far it has not been recognized, is its large Assyrian component.” (2003:265) He goes on to note sporadic Assyrianisms that appear in other Amarna letters in the formation of nouns and pronouns--but not verbs, concluding that “those of the Jerusalem letters are unique.” Of these striking Assyrianisms, those in the verbal system are especially widespread and “Verbs primae aleph3-5 are consistently (13x) treated as in Assyrian.”* (267) In the case of the infinitive, in both cases where we would expect the Standard Babylonian form with e-vowels in both syllables, we instead find: erāba (EA 286:43, for Bab. erēba) and ezābi (EA 287:62, for Bab. ezēbi). Because the pattern occurs with no exceptions in all 13 cases, with every I-e verbal root being treated this way, it is far stronger than if we had only these two infinitives.

Now, it so happens that there is only one completely preserved verbal form in the Jerusalem fragment. The editors, reading a set of three very clear signs, read:

4' i-pé-ša x [ … to do . [ …

Here the editors lay out the situation well:

.“In obverse line 4', there may be a clear indication of Amarna type phraseology, which one would expect in a royal letter of the Late Bronze Age. Here one finds i-pé-ša, which appears to be a writing for the infinitive of epēšu, ‘to do’, also attested in Hazor 10:19, perhaps from the Lebanon, and in EA 79:24 and 129:27 in letters from Rib-Hadda of Gubla (Byblos). Thus, this phrase, and consequently the tablet’s scribe, just might be from what is now northern Israel or Lebanon. However, three scattered examples do not a rule make.” (Mazar, Horowitz, Oshima and Goren 2010:12)

But if this were from the writer of any of the known Jerusalem letters, the form would have been epāša, not ipēša! Instead of the expected Assyrian second vowel a, we see the standard Babylonian e. And in the first syllable what we find instead is an example of a phenomenon analyzed in detail by Shlomo Izre'el (1987), the most sophisticated student of the linguistic aspects of the letters, in which the initial e- of verbs switches to i-. Since the phenomenon is most widespread in the variety known as Amurru Akkadian, which does not always show Canaanite influence, we cannot say this is a local phenomenon—although it does also appear sporadically in the letters written in Canaan (to the editors' examples of this form, add the example Taanach 2:11, from a century earlier: “if the bow is finished being made (ipēšam)” (Horowitz, Oshima and Sanders 2006:133), as noted by Rainey 1996 I 37).

If this one verb is actually representative of the writer's language, what does it tell us? What it says is that the fragment could have been written a century before the Amarna letters, or even at the same time, but it was not by the writer of the letters we know. And so it broadens, incrementally but significantly, our picture of written culture at Jerusalem: we now know there was more than one Babylonian dialect being written here during the Late Bronze Age.

*See below for a fuller grammatical investigation.


Cochavi-Rainey, Zipora, and Anson Rainey. 2007. "Finite Verbal Usage in the Jerusalem Amarna Letters," Ugarit-Forschungen 39: 37-56.

Horowitz, Wayne, Takayoshi Oshima, and Seth Sanders. 2006. Cuneiform in Canaan: Cuneiform Sources from The Land of Israel in Ancient Times. Jerusalem: Israel Exploration Society.

Izre'el, Shlomo. 1987. "The Complementary Distribution of the Vowels e and i in the Peripheral Akkadian Dialect of Amurru – A Further Step towards Our Understanding of the Development of the Amarna Jargon." In Proceedings of the Fourth International Hamito-Semitic Congress (Marburg, 20-22 September 1983), ed. Herrmann Jungraithmayr and Walter W. Müller. Amsterdam Studies in the Theory and History of Linguistic Science. Series IV: Current Issues in Linguistic Theory, no. 44. Amsterdam: Benjamins. 525-541.

Knudtzon, J.A. 1915. Die el-Amarna-Tafeln. Anmerkungen und Register bearbeitet von C. Weber und E. Ebeling. (Vorderasiatische Bibliothek, 2.) 2 volumes. Leipzig.

Mazar, Eilat, Wayne Horowitz, Takayoshi Oshima, and Yuval Goren. 2010. "A Cuneiform Tablet from the Ophel in Jerusalem" IEJ 60:4-21.

Moran, William. 1975. The Syrian Scribe of the Jerusalem Amarna Letters. In Unity and Diversity. Essays in History, Literature and Religion of the Ancient Near East, ed. H. Goedicke and J. J. M. Roberts. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University. 146-166. [=Moran 2003:249-274]

———. 2003. Amarna Studies: Collected Writings. Harvard Semitic Studies, no. 54. Edited by John Huehnergard and Shlomo Izre’el. Winona Lake, IN: Eisenbrauns.

Grammatical Background

There is an essential bibliography and bare-bones but up-to-date online edition of the letters.

I am grateful to Wilfred van Soldt, an eminent scholar of cuneiform culture, for reminding me to be sure of the full range of grammatical possibilities for the form here. In particular, in the wider cuneiform world a Middle Babylonian/late Old Babylonian first- or third-person singular durative plus ventive ippeša is at least possible.

But it seems that this was not the form people used for the I-e durative in the Late Bronze Age Levant; at least in the Amarna corpus the pattern is striking. Knudtzon (1915:II 1402) registers about 45 examples of the G durative of epēšu. Of these, 37 have a theme-vowel -u-, 8 show a (presumably) Assyrian-influenced -a- vowel, and none have -e-. This means that, while such a form would be well in place in a normal OB text, it's unlikely in this place and time. The infinitive remains the only likely reading.

Cochavey-Rainey and Rainey's important article (2007) does argue for one exception to Moran's pattern of Assyrian vocalization for epēšu: the form e-pu-uš in EA 286:14, where the writing is ambiguously preterite (as Moran interprets it, fitting his pattern) or durative (as Cochavey-Rainey and Rainey argue). I am not certain about the syntax, but for forms with past/punctual reference after interrogatives in the Jerusalem corpus see the suffix form in 289:10 am-mi-nim LUGAL-ri la-a ša-al-šu “why has the king not questioned him” (as Cochavi-Rainey and Rainey 2007:51 render it) and more proximately the parallel to our verb at the beginning of 286:5 ma-an-na ep-ša-ti a-na LUGAL EN-ia “what have I done to my lord the king”? So Abdi-Heba begins his discourse on this topic with a parallel construction referring to a single past criminal act, and it is then at least possible to render 286:14 as "why would I have committed a crime against my lord the king?" While we can't rule out this one exception as possible, it would leave us with no certain counterexamples to the pattern of Assyrian vocalization of I-e verbs.

Thursday, July 15, 2010

Consider Jerusalem! The Political Status of Jerusalem in the 14th Century B.C.E

“Consider Jerusalem! This neither my father nor my mother gave to me. The strong hand of the king gave it to me.” – EA 287:24-28

What do the earliest texts from Jerusalem say about its political status? Our evidence consists of six letters dating from the 14th century B.C.E., written by a man named Abdi-Heba, who describes himself as a “soldier,” rather than a “king” or even a “mayor.” They describe deteriorating military conditions: Abdi-Heba begs repeatedly for a single unit of archers to defend Jerusalem, which will otherwise be lost to bandits and the treachery of other local rulers.

Abdi-Heba was sure the Pharoah was ignoring him, and he was probably right.* Like many other diplomatic letters from the region, they are addressed in a pleading tone to the Egyptian Pharoah and were found in the archive of a large imperial bureaucracy, the ancient Egyptian “Foreign Service” in the royal capital of Amarna. From the obsequious notes to the scribe found at the end of four of the five well-preserved letters, it is clear that Abdi-Heba knew the Pharoah would never read them, and would only hear of their contents if he flattered the agent in charge of the “Syria Desk,” as the great Assyriologist Leo Oppenheim described it.

William Moran noted long ago** that Abdi-Hepa describes his status as ruler in a unique way, not found in any of the 380 or so other Amarna letters. His plea to “Consider Jerusalem!” repeats a theme that appears in four of the five well-preserved letters. In the careful translation of William Moran, the other passages read:

“Behold, I am not a mayor; I am a soldier of the king, my lord. Behold, I am a friend (?) of the king and a tribute-bearer of the king. It was neither my father nor my mother, but the strong arm of the king that placed me in the house of my father.” EA 288:9-15

“I am not a [mayor]; I am a soldier [for the king, my lord.]” EA 285:5-6

Why does he keep telling the Pharoah he's not a mayor? His rhetorical purpose is clearest in this passage: “Seeing that, as far as I am concerned, neither my father nor my mother put me in this place, but the strong arm of the king brought me into my father's house, why should I of all people commit a crime against the king, my lord?” 286:9-15. His peers, the mayors, have been accusing him to the Pharoah.

To defend himself against charges of treason, and quite unlike a typical king, Abdi-Heba insists repeatedly that he did not inherit his position! His rhetorical point is this: it is precisely because of his lack of conventional legitimacy that he is the king's man in a way that none of the other local rulers all. Rather, he owes his power not to inheritance but gained it entirely through the Pharoah's military force: Jerusalem was either conquered by Egyptian forces or mercenaries in Egyptian employ. Abdi-Heba may have been a local mercenary leader (the goddess in his name is Hurrian) or from a local family with a claim—or aspiration-- to power: it depends on how literally one takes his reference to the king putting him in his father's house (not “returning” him, as Mari letters refer to the restoration of a dynasty).

Whom does the ruler of Jerusalem consider his peers? The only people to whom he compares himself are the haziannu, a term Moran translates “mayor.” The term is well-known and its translation is uncontroversial: here is how the major dictionaries render it:
Concise Dictionary of Akkadian “mayor, village headman”
CAD “chief magistrate of a town, of a quarter of a larger city, a village or large estate—mayor, burgomaster, headman”
AhW “Bürgermeister”

Is it possible that there is a split in political designations—that Abdi-Heba's self-designation is merely self-abnegating rhetoric, and that he was called a king at home? After all, in the 9th-century Assyrian-Aramaic bilingual from Tel Fekheriye, the ruler calls himself “governor” in the cuneiform portion but “king” in the Aramaic version. Fortunately we can have good evidence for at least one local ruler: Ugarit was a major city-state of the Late Bronze Age, from which both substantial native archives and diplomatic letters to Egypt were preserved. We know that the king of Ugarit was called a king in native documents but was politically subservient to both Hatti and Egypt during this period. Did he deny his native kingship to the Pharoah?

No: in EA 47:14-19 Ammishtamru or Niqmaddu complains that “[to a]ll the messengers of [other?] kings [you gi]ve your me, however, [and to] my messengers [you have not giv]en your tablet...” Similarly, in EA 49, Niqmaddu of Ugarit demands that the king give him as a gift two Cushite palace attendants and a physician: a move that clearly assumes a level of reciprocity Abdi-Heba wouldn't dream of.

Thus, on current evidence, the only known ruler of Jerusalem in the 14th century B.C.E. considered himself a military commander, on par with mayors and village headmen.

In the exemplary publication of the new Jerusalem fragment by Eilat Mazar, Yuval Goren, and my colleagues Wayne Horowitz and Takayoshi Oshima, Mazar makes clear that no Late Bronze Age structures have been discovered yet: ““Like in the Ophel excavations, no architectural remains earlier than the Iron Age IIa were found during Mazar’s City of David excavations,” p. 5

Given that we have no idea of the extent of settlement, I concur with Christopher Rollston that the press release's claim that the letter comes from a “king” and that Jerusalem was a “major center” at the time is premature. The press release, naturally, speaks modern language and draws on modern assumptions about what constitutes political importance. People in ancient Canaan--including the writers of the Amarna letters--did not necessarily share these assumptions. And the fragment--the linguistic features of which haven't been fully discussed--and Abdi-Heba's situation are important for reasons I'll discuss in the next post.

*As Leo Oppenheim wrote, “We cannot and will not know whether the letters written in Akkadian and Hittite to the Egyptian court were ever read to the Pharoah or just filed in the archives of the Foreign Office, we cannot opt for either of the offered possibilities, both of which may in some way have corresponded to reality.”

EA 316 “seems to show that the correspondence coming from Palestine and Syria was brought not directly before the Egyptian king but rather to the 'Syrian desk' in the Foreign Office, to be referred then to the specific departments according to the content of individual letters." -"A Note on the Scribes in Mesopotamia" Assyriological Studies 16 (1965) 253-56

**Moran, William L. 1975. “The Syrian Scribe of the Jerusalem Amarna Letters,” in Unity and Diversity: Essays in the History, Literature, and Religion of the Ancient Near East (ed. H. Goedicke and J. J. M. Roberts; Baltimore/London: Johns Hopkins University Press) 146-166.

Saturday, April 17, 2010

Obscene Pseudepigrapha and What Dead Sea Scrolls Scholars Could Learn from Fredric Jameson

Behind [Jameson's] project lay the understanding that social life is ‘a seamless web, a single inconceivable and transindividual process, in which there is no need to invent ways of linking language events and social upheavals or economic contradictions because on that level they were never separate from one another.’

Benjamin Kunkel showcases the demand that social theory makes on philology in his lively LRB introduction to Jameson: texts are woven in a seamless web with life, and if our work doesn't register this, our work is inadequate. Scholars of ancient Judaism have begun vigorous attempts to do this, but I'm not sure it's quite happened yet. Carol Newsom's careful and pioneering Self as Symbolic Space has as its goal investigating how the Qumran community
constituted itself as a sectarian society. Key to the formation of the community was the reconstruction of the identity of individual members...Persons who came to experience themselves in light of the narratives and symbolic structures embedded in the community practices would have developed the dispositions of affinity and estrangement necessary for the constitution of a sectarian society.

It begins with a clarion call to see how the Scrolls interanimate, that is, how living human beings would have formed themselves together with the texts they read and prayed. The potential is nothing less than an empirically based view of texts in practice. A mere four hours of a life of devotion in the desert might draw on five different texts of five different genres. A devotee might arise with a particular prayer on his lips, wash himself according to specific rules, see by the sun that the year had advanced further into a period of light, know by signs on his own body that he himself had this many portions of cosmic light in him, and sing together with his fellow members a song portraying the singing and movement of angelic bodies in a heavenly temple awash in unseen light. An average snippet of a day would not just "refer to" but act out, and not just act out in isolation but enact in mutually informing practice, genres of private prayer, ritual law, calendar, physiognomy, and communal prayer.

But the rest of Newsom's book reverts to "merely" an excellent piece of scrolls scholarship: a literary reading of two big texts in succession. A column-by-column close reading of the Community Rule followed by a column-by-column close reading of the Hymns of the community. The notion of interanimation is basically dropped (I'm not sure if the word, let alone the analysis, occurs after the beginning), and the clarion call fades, though the quality of her analysis never lets us forget its promise. What remains is a model of how one might read personal experience off of the literary features of individual texts, but also the nagging question of how much further Newsom could have gone.

The tools exist for us to push responsibly further: the linguistic anthropologist Robin Shoaps, who has recently published an important study of the social life of a remarkable piece of a Guatemalan village's communally produced obscene Pseudepigrapha, The Testament of Judas, has articulated a theory of "communicative ecology" that synthesizes key insights about genre from Mikhail Bakhtin and participation from Erving Goffman. It might help us put our intuitions about interanimation to work in new ways.

Why good social theory is like Midrash

One trait of postmodernism unmentioned by Jameson was the special difficulty critics and thinkers of recent generations have experienced in conveying their thoughts except through the medium of someone else’s; intellectuals today tend to offer their commentary on the world by way of comments on another’s commentary. Jameson has been unique, however, in his extremes of inclusion or ventriloquism. He seems to have detected some aspect of the truth in virtually any body of work he’s discussed, and so to have recruited more, and more various, thinkers into the march of his own thoughts than any rival theorist.

Sunday, April 11, 2010

First Thought on The Qeiyafa Ostracon

The ostracon discovered in July 2008 at Khirbet Qeiyafa hints at a new direction for cultural interaction in the early Iron Age southern Levant: not only is it the longest known Proto-Canaanite inscription and the only letter we have in that script, it also suggests a literal new direction in how its writer formed its letters, and thus about how some people at that time learned to write. The direction in which it has heretofore been taken is rather older. It quickly caught the public and scholarly imagination for reasons that may not have had much to do with what is new about the text: both newspaper reports and academic statements dated it to the tenth century B.C.E. and portrayed it as the earliest Hebrew inscription. They suggested it proved that David or Solomon's kingdom existed, the historicity of both having been hotly--and polemically--debated in recent decades.

But as the text's publishers, Misgav, Garfinkel and Ganor carefully and clearly point out, the text's script is strikingly remote from that of every known Hebrew inscription. What I do not understand is why they don't point out that each decipherable word, as well as the one discernible syntactic unit, could as well be Aramaic. The issue with the script is clear. All legible letters fit well with excavated examples of the Proto-Canaanite script from the 13th-11th centuries such as the Izbet Sartah ostracon, the Qubur-el-Walaida handle, and the Zarephath and Beth-Shemesh ostraca, and shows a glaring contrast with the new Phoenician-style script of the 10th century.

As was immediately pointed out by the most experienced scholars of Proto-Canaanite: Aaron Demsky (in the Hebrew publication of the text), Allan Millard (personal communication), and Kyle McCarter (ditto), the one thing we know about its direction is that it was not written right-to-left, the direction of every known ancient Hebrew inscription from the earliest at Kuntillet 'Ajrud to the later Qumran texts. Weirdly, and intriguingly, nobody can say with complete confidence in which direction the text *was* written, since most characters assume a left-to-right stance but a few important ones suggest the text was written top-down. While the strongest indicators--the waw of lines 1 and 2 and the kaf of line 4--point to a left-to-right orientation, like Ugaritic, much Proto-Canaanite, or modern English, the alef and bet make little sense with a left-to-right orientation, and can only be easily read if the inscription was written top-to-bottom, like other Proto-Canaanite inscriptions or many of their Egyptian prototypes. The novelty of this is that it strongly suggests that the text's writer was 1) exposed to writing with both directions and 2) had no conception of a *standard*, an idea that there was a single correct way to write. Instead, he seems to have written the earliest letters of the alphabet according to one technique, and some of the others according to a second. This suggests that the writer's learning was gathered eclectically and his training casual.

But the language of the text as so far deciphered is dialectally ambiguous--a fact that you won't necessarily get if you read the reports, since they sometimes hinge on a word that might not be there. The inscription could as easily represent 1) the earliest example of Aramaic--of the portions of the text that are agreed on by each of the experienced epigraphers who have treated it (Misgav, Yardeni, Demsky, and Ahituv) all the complete identified roots עבד, מלכ, שפט, אל are found in both ancient Aramaic and Hebrew; syntactically the verbs עבד and שפט are well in place in Aramaic. Crucially, the phrase x אלתעש ends in a smudged character that could be qof, resh or less plausibly tav, each of which results in a root present in both Aramaic and Hebrew. Given the presence of this abraded but highly probable character it is unsafe to read the distinctive Southern Levantine עשי root, attested only in Hebrew and Moabite of this period. The syntax of 'al + prefix form is the standard Northwest Semitic prohibitive in this period, equally at home in Phoenician, Aramaic and Hebrew. 2) The text could be the earliest close ancestor of the dialect which would later be labeled Judean by biblical writers, and Hebrew in the postbiblical period (each label having ideological dimensions of its own). As we'll see, its appearance in this form may be equally unsettling to our assumptions about what ancient Israelites should or should not be doing with language. 3) The text could represent a previously unattested Northwest Semitic variety, like the language of the Deir Alla inscription, the main features of which preserve a stage before the split between Aramaic and Canaanite.

That is precisely why we should be excited about the aspects of this artifact that violate our presuppositions about early Iron Age language and culture: they tell us something genuinely new, and help free us from the anachronisms with which our interpretation of both the biblical text and Levantine history are encrusted. In the next installment: why the publishers' proposal to date this text to the 10th century is more subversive of a literate United Monarchy than the 12th-11th century range that epigraphy suggests. Then: crucial readings from Yardeni, Ahituv, Demsky, methodological points from Rollston, and insights from John Hobbins, Ed Cook and Doug Mangrum

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Interviews, critiques and new thoughts on the Qeiyafa ostracon

Gordon Govier, writer for Christianity Today and copublisher of The Book and the Spade, interviewed me for a short but sweet segment (click here to listen) on the Qeiyafa ostracon. Gordon listens patiently while I try to lay out a million reasons why this text is exciting even without Gershon Galil's dramatic but uncertain reconstructions. An interview with perhaps the world's expert on Iron Age Hebrew script, Christopher Rollston, should follow.

Rollston has the essential epigraphic critique of this important find, and John Hobbins has a thoughtful, challenging engagement with Rollston's and my own points.

In my new book, written before the ostracon was published, I tried to lay out an intellectual framework for dealing with precisely the phenomenon this text represents: new encounters between language and writing in the ancient Levant. In a day or two I'll have a post in which I attempt to fit what we now know about this text into the bigger picture: the culture and politics of writing in Iron Age Israel.

The Invention of Hebrew is a National Jewish Book Award Finalist

I was delighted to see this announcement. It is also the only finalist in the "Scholarship" category from a press that does not begin with the word "Jewish." I don't know what that means but I thought I'd add it. Maybe it means that I am the winner in scholarship from gentile presses? I like to think everybody's a winner, in a larger sense.