“Revealed Science” : Emergence of Jewish Science and Apocalyptic Genres

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by Neil Godfrey

Continuing to share my reading of Seth Sanders’ From Adapa to Enoch, Scribal Culture and Religious Vision in Judea and Babylon. All posts are archived here.
“Science” will be used here as a system of exact knowledge of the physical world.
Sanders, From Adapa to Enoch

Recall from the previous post (How Science Began) that we are talking about a world that conceptualized no clear distinction between the natural and the supernatural, or between nature and culture.

Seth Sanders identifies three core areas of exact description of the physical world documented by the Priestly scholars as the earliest form of Judean “scientific knowledge” known to us:

  • Time and the Universe (Genesis 1:1 to 2:4a)
  • The Temple (Exodus 25-31)
  • The Human Body (Leviticus 12-15)

The Origins of the Universe

Genesis opens with a taxonomy of each major entity in the world and concludes with God’s word creating the sabbath day as part of the cosmos. Later in ritual texts we find that this creation has included the categories of clean and unclean animals (Leviticus 11, Deuteronomy 14), their different physical attributes being recognized since antediluvian times. (Notice that the sabbath and forbidden foods are not deemed to originate in culture but as an integral part or category of the created world itself. Creation was activated by God’s word.

The Temple

Here we are in the realm of ritual requirements. We therefore find a quite different account of the temple and its system. Here we read not the words of an anonymous narrator but the words of God himself. God is quoted as setting out the details of the materials, measurements, layout and rituals of the tabernacle. Moses is a passive visionary because God points out that He, God, caused Moses to see it all. God has to show or reveal the heavenly model that the earthly structure and rituals are to copy. But it needs to be set out in the words of God for the reader who is not privileged to see the heavenly structure.

The Human Body

Similarly we are in the realm of ritual. The rules for bodily discharges and blemishes are likewise made known by divine commands, revelation.

Astronomical data and new information about the body introduced into Judea (using Judea throughout though in pre-Roman times Jehud may be more strictly correct) survive in such intertestamental literature as the Astronomical Book of Enoch and certain of the Dead Sea Scrolls.

It is interesting to see how this new scientific information made its entrance into the Judean world, building on the genres of existing “scientific” knowledge that we have seen in the three priestly statements above. We start with the introduction of astronomical knowledge that originated in Babylonia.

Revelation and Science are the One Genre

The Astronomical Book of Enoch begins:

The book of the courses of the luminaries of the heaven, the relations of each, according to their classes, their dominion and their seasons, according to their names and places of origin, and according to their months, which Uriel, the holy angel, who was with me, who is their guide, showed me; and he showed me all their laws exactly as they are . . . .

The form of Priestly literature setting out the knowledge of the Temple is continued here to introduce the new knowledge of the heavenly bodies. The information is revealed by a divine being. It is shown, it is a heavenly revelation. Enoch is the passive visionary. Even the mathematics is revealed; it is not calculated by Enoch:

And I saw another course, a law for her, (and) how according to that law she performs her monthly revolution. And all these Uriel, the holy angel who is the leader of them all,showed to me, and their positions, and I wrote down their positions as he showed them to me, and I wrote down their months as they were, and the appearance of their lights till fifteen days were accomplished. In single seventh parts she accomplishes all her light in the east, and in single seventh parts accomplishes all her darkness in the west. . . .

Sanders explains that the grammatical subtleties of the continuity with the Priestly literature are lost in modern translations that are based on the fifth century C.E. Ethiopic text. Discoveries of Enochic fragments of Enochic literature (from the third century B.C.E.) confirm the semantic relationship with the relevant Pentateuch passages.

We find that the editors of this earliest collection of Enochic works drew on the image, and grammar, of Moses’ passively gained vision . . . to frame Enoch’s own passively gained visions . . . .

Despite the significance of the discovery of the original Aramaic version of 1 Enoch at Qumran, no modem edition of the books of Enoch makes this data about the editorial framing of its visions available to the reader. This renders the fragmentary but consistent evidence of the Aramaic – and thus a clue to the texts’ editing, biblical referents, and epistemology – invisible. (pp. 145 f)

So here is a more literal translation of the original opening lines of the Astronomical Book of Enoch:

[And] they … [become seen in their seasons], and they do not alt[er] their order. S[ee] the earth and consider its working! [From first to l]ast nothing changes and everything of it becomes seen. See the signs of […] See all the signs of […]! (p. 147)

To us, divine revelation is the very opposite of our conception of scientific knowledge. Not so in an earlier time.

Exact knowledge of the cosmos, of the heavenly bodies, is a sign of divine order. At the same time it is something that the Divinity causes knowers to see.

For us, we expect a scientist to say, “I observed or calculated X”, but here we read of such knowledge, “God revealed X.”

the calculations are Aramaic-Babylonian astronomy, but the agency belongs to the angel Uriel who caused Enoch to see the calculation. (pp. 147f)

Such intertestamental literature is not so very far removed from the Priestly narrative and revelatory writings that we encounter in the Pentateuch.

The Astronomical Book of Enoch is both a narrative and a revelation. Clearly we would not expect new knowledge of astronomy to be generated from such a culture.

Shutting One Door Opens Another

Rather, it laid a foundation for a different, and quite productive, intellectual agenda: world history.

For over a thousand years Mesopotamian scholars had labored to find similar connections between exact descriptive knowledge of the cosmos and the flow of historical events. Taubes’ concept of apocalyptic science in his remarkably prescient Occidental Eschatology (2009 [1947]) pinpoints both what is shared and what is distinctive in the new Judean scribal culture. His fusion of the two terms, “apocalyptic” and “science,” suggests why the Astronomical Book could have been both the earliest known Aramaic adaptation of a previously Babylonian form of knowledge, and the earliest extended Jewish cosmic speculation. It was a systematic and politically important way of establishing truths about the world, despite the fact that no modem definition seems to consider it science.

But Taubes (2009:33) pointedly suggested that the real legacy of apocalyptic science may not have been in what we call science at all, but rather in a new vision of history:

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

The revealed science of Enoch and Qumran shows a key continuity here with Mesopotamian scholarship, one crucial task of which was to study the stars in order to know the trajectory of politics. The Assyriologist Mario Fales has shown that already in the Neo-Assyrian period, the practical effect of the “astronomical diaries,” which correlated astronomy with a chronicle of events on earth, was to link heavenly observation “with the concept of diachrony, and more widely with the flow of political and social history.” The fact that later Enochic and apocalyptic literature builds in this direction by correlating otherworldly journeys with claims of the shape and direction of history suggests further connections to be explored between Near Eastern scribal epistemologies and the search for large-scale political patterns in history.

(pp. 148 f)

The Rise of the Scribal Revealers from Enoch to David

What is being explained here are the emergence of Second Temple apocalypses (e.g. Jubilees, 11Q Melchizedek, Enochic Book of Dreams, IV Ezra, 2 Baruch…) and the historical schemes found in them.

Both Mesopotamia and Jehud/Judea “shared an approach to knowledge of the physical world based on the idea of a discursive universe, a cosmos made of signs.” But unlike Mesopotamia Judea produced the apocalyptic genres. Why the difference?

Sanders proposes that the emergence of the apocalyptic in Judea was a consequence of a “series of historical ruptures and reinventions”. Mesopotamia, by contrast, experienced a steady line of authority, of first local than more distant imperial rulers. Even after local rulers had been replaced by more distant kings the local scribal elites continued in their administrative positions and steadily increased their status and power. If early Mesopotamian kings boasted of their Adapa-inspired architectural exploits, by the Hellenistic period it was the scribes themselves who attributed the largest ziggurat erected in Uruk to their patron sage, Oannes-Adapa. The scribes added the names of scribal ancestors as vital figures alongside those of past kings, ancestors who became patron figures protecting each new generation. Contrast the instability in the west, with exile and replacement of the land with a new generation of “importees” in the Persian period, followed by warfare against the Seleucid rulers.

The Judean insertion of scholarly figures into legendary history is one of the main distinctive features of apocalyptic literature. What was done through lists and tables in Mesopotamia is done through narrative in Judea. New writing, often almost boundless in extent, is attributed to patriarchs, prophets and priests from Enoch and Moses to Levi and Ezra who are seen as scribal founders. Even heroes formerly remembered most prominently as kings, like David, become more and more the illuminated sources of texts. And as we shall see, in liturgical texts like the Hodayot, Qumran sectarians both claimed this type of knowledge for themselves and also claimed the type of illumination that allowed figures from Enoch to David to gain, transmit and even newly write divine knowledge. (p. 150)

Given the way the universe, culture, the divine, were seen as broad conceptual wholes, one can understand the emergence of a new form of literature in both Mesopotamia and Judea. Human affairs were understood as part of the cosmic whole, hence

history itself [became] comprehensible through exact cosmic numbers and the reading of ominous signs. An increasing interest in vaticinia ex eventu fused genres of divination with genres of history-writing to create a new subgenre of mantic historiography.

History was known to the divine authors of all from the beginning and it was measured out in ordained measured times — not unlike the times that marked the movements of astronomical bodies.

And the Mighty One hath assuredly made known to you the methods [sequence] of the times that have passed, and of those that are destined to pass in His world from the beginning of its creation even unto its consummation . . .  (2 Baruch 56:2)

The science of exactly knowing the physical world was carried over to an analysis of political events.

Babylonian and Judean scribes were part of the same world and united by the Aramaic language, the lingua franca of the day.

I have attempted to adhere closely to Seth Sanders’ account. Many questions arise along the way that I have not noted here. I’m sure you will have your own. One in particular that interests me is relating Judean scribal culture to the Hellenistic world as well as the Babylonian. For example, what source or sources were the foundation of the Priestly view of “pollution” of the temple and land itself? I’d like to compare the rituals of cleansing the altars in the Temple through sacrificial blood, for example, with both Greek and Babylonian rituals for cleansing “pollution” arising from “sins” from the sight of the gods. Another: to what extent is the narrative genre mentioned in the above post indebted to Hellenistic influence?

Sanders, Seth L. 2017. From Adapa to Enoch: Scribal Culture and Religious Vision in Judea and Babylon. Tübingen, Germany: Mohr Siebeck.


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Neil Godfrey

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One thought on ““Revealed Science” : Emergence of Jewish Science and Apocalyptic Genres”

  1. Exactly. From the wiki article about “The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind”(1976) by Julian Jaynes:

    According to Jaynes, ancient people in the bicameral state of mind would have experienced the world in a manner that has some similarities to that of a person with schizophrenia. Rather than making conscious evaluations in novel or unexpected situations, the person would hallucinate a voice or “god” giving admonitory advice or commands and obey without question: One would not be at all conscious of one’s own thought processes per se. Jaynes’s hypothesis is offered as a possible explanation of “command hallucinations” that often direct the behavior of those afflicted by first rank symptoms of schizophrenia, as well as other voice hearers.
    Jaynes built a case for this hypothesis that human brains existed in a bicameral state until as recently as 3,000 years ago by citing evidence from many diverse sources including historical literature. He took an interdisciplinary approach, drawing data from many different fields. Jaynes asserted that, until roughly the times written about in Homer’s Iliad, humans did not generally have the self-awareness characteristic of consciousness as most people experience it today. Rather, the bicameral individual was guided by mental commands believed to be issued by external ‘gods’ — commands which were recorded in ancient myths, legends and historical accounts. This is exemplified not only in the commands given to characters in ancient epics but also the very muses of Greek mythology which “sang” the poems. According to Jaynes, the ancients literally heard muses as the direct source of their music and poetry.”

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