From Babylonia to Moses and Enoch to Paul: Questions

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by Neil Godfrey

I conclude the series on From Adapa to Enoch with this post.

Ancient scribes were taught to see the world through the eyes of mythical heroes like Adapa and Enoch. They were taught to write in the voices of the likes of Adapa and Enoch. Through ritual mortals could even become the presence of those mythical figures. Even the early Christian writings declare the ability of human worshipers to bear the shining glory of God and sit with him in heavenly places. “Shining glory”, in that Mesopotamian-Persian-Hellenistic thought world was a corporeal entity that could be taken off and put on like clothing. We need to set aside our idea of dualism that posits an unbridgeable divide between the natural and supernatural realms. Dualism in the time we are discussing happened entirely within the realm of the single cosmos: the physical bore signs of the spiritual; a mortal could ascend into heaven and share in the divine glory and yet remain mortal. The entire universe was a system of signs. To be able to read the stars was to learn the language of the gods and to understand the secrets of the universe. A word had power to change the events in the physical world. The world was even created by words in the Judean myth.

Categories that are problematic for us to understand, like how a scribe could experience supernatural revelation or think that his words were of similar essence to preexisting revealed text, assume a radical distinction between the natural and the supernatural. But our Judean scribes, like Babylonian scribes, had no separate category for the merely material world as opposed to their culturally determined speech or God’s purely supernatural miracles. They had a semiotic ontology in which the universe was shaped by God in language-like ways. The … “reckoning, calculation” of speech can be implanted in the mind of the speaker of the [Thanksgiving Hymns], or God can cause him to perceive the [measurements] that govern the movement of sun and year. God organized essential pieces of human language in precisely the same way as he organized other mysteries and calculations of the universe.

(Sanders, 235. Highlighting and [] substitutions of technical expressions mine.)

If this kind of knowledge had its origins in Mesopotamia, according to the thesis argued by Seth Sanders in From Adapa to Enoch, it found its way throughout the Near East, including Judea, in the “Parchment Period”, when new writing media (script, language, container) superseded clay and cuneiform. (We are talking fifth century B.C.E.)

Judean scribes made consistent changes to the Babylonian forms of knowledge that came their way:

[I]n its adaption of Babylonian knowledge, Judea shows a pattern of narrativization. All known cases of Babylonian into Jewish literature involve a genre change into narratives of the ancient past. Whether ritual (the treaty-oaths of Esarhaddon), legal collection (the laws of Hammurapi), or astronomical and mathematical tables (Mul.Apin, Enüma Arm Enlil 14, the standard cuneiform fraction sequences), all were transformed into stories about ancestors, from Moses to Enoch to Levi. This reflects a dominant and widely recognized Judean literary value by which scribes conducted other major acts of text-building such as the Pentateuch (cf. Baden 2012, Sanders 2015, Schmid 2010).

(Sanders, 232 f. My highlighting)

To sidetrack for a moment into the Sanders 2015 citation above, Sanders sees the sources of the biblical narratives as being very the classical Mesopotamian literature. For example, the Genesis story of the Noah Flood appears to be based at least in part on a source like the Epic of Gilgamesh. Where the Genesis narrative differs from any Mesopotomanian narrative model is in its doublets (everything is narrated twice) and even in the fact that many of those doublets are inconsistent or contradictory. The possibility of a Greek influence never arises. A question in my mind relates to Greek historical narratives that do contain doublets with contradictions and other inconsistencies (see, e.g. Explaining (?) the Contradictory Genesis Accounts of the Creation of Adam and Eve). Other Greek literature even sets out a narrative structure that seems to foreshadow what we read in the larger story of the Flood and return to civilization through “Babel” (see, e.g. Plato and the Bible on the Origins of Civilization). Of course the narrator keeps himself in the background in the Primary History (Genesis to 2 Kings) so there is no personal intrusion to alert readers before introducing a second (and contradictory) version of events as we find in Herodotus. Questions remain.

Question 1: How does the above Mesopotamian/Near Eastern view of the conceptual unity of the material-cultural-supernatural worlds compare with Classical Greek and Hellenistic concepts? (Do we encounter evolution of ideas?)

Question 2: If the answer to Q1 points to differences then do we see these differences surface in the canonical and extra-canonical literature up through the Hellenistic and early Roman eras?

Question 3: Can we look more closely at the claimed extension of the above ideas to their early Christian analogs (e.g. Christians now sitting on thrones in heaven and reflecting more and more of the glory of God)?


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Neil Godfrey

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4 thoughts on “From Babylonia to Moses and Enoch to Paul: Questions”

  1. I don’t know answers to your questions, but thank you for posting this series. I’d really like to get this book, but it’s now on a list of about 12 other academic publications that I’d like to get, all of which cost over $100, so I can’t very well fork that out. I’d really like to know how I can get access to some of these types of books more reasonably. I can find them on many university on-line libraries, but of course don’t have access to any of them without being enrolled…

    1. I don’t know about university libraries where you live, but the system in my state one can buy a library card for about $100 a year and have checkout priveleges

  2. I first look for a copy online. Scribd and book4you.org sometimes come good. Sometimes Questia. Even archive.org sometimes has quite recent books online; they are not restricted to very old stuff. HathiTrust, too. Another option is bookfinder.com which leads to inexpensive second-hand copies. (Occasionally ebay, too.) Some university libraries offer very inexpensive public membership but that does not usually cover online resources. Our state library is free to join and does allow access to many electronic versions of academic books. Sometimes these need to be read online (no downloads) but with the right software one can save pages and compile them into a single pdf file for personal use. So does our National Library. I check out worldcat.org to see if there are any libraries nearby (or in Australia at all) and from there request interlibrary loans through a local library — $16.50 for the service is cheaper than $165 to purchase the book. I have occasionally found our state library willing and able to access an interlibrary loan of an item from Israel and from the U.S. Library of Congress — for $40. (Not bad for an item otherwise unavailable in Australia.)

    As i mentioned a couple of times with the From Adapa book, I took up someone’s advice and simply asked for a copy gratis from the publisher with the promise of posting about it on the blog. That method has worked a little too well, though, because I now have a rather onerous backlog of thick scholarly books in my “post about” basket.

    Which reminds me: I sometimes forget that I have ordered something and discover weeks later I get two copies of the same! This week I received from France 2 copies of “Le Midrash Rabba sur Ruth : Suivi de Le Midrash Rabba sur Esther” by Maurice Mergui. If anyone would like to purchase a discounted copy of this book (as new condition) in French — it’s a gripping tale of rabbinic midrashic interpretations of the Books of Ruth and Esther — plus postage feel free to contact me. Don’t all rush me at once for it, though. https://www.librarything.com/work/23683074/summary/173121492

  3. What happened to the Heavens being just like Earth, but in various states of perfection? No dualism? The heavenly and the earthly?

    I understand that the idea of secularism wasn’t available and religion was not something that was just a part of their lives, that is was woven into the weft of the fabric of their cultures, but this seems a strange way to make that point.

    I guess I still don’t have what it takes to engage in Biblical philosophy.

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