Reviews of

From Adapa to Enoch

In HB/OT, Hebrew Bible, Mohr Siebeck, Ryan D. Schroeder, Scribal culture, Seth L. Sanders on January 7, 2019 at 9:41 pm


2019.1.1 | Seth L. Sanders. From Adapa to Enoch: Scribal Culture and Religious Vision in Judea and Babylon. Texts and Studies in Ancient Judaism 167. Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2017. pp xiv + 280. ISBN 978-3-16-154456-9.

Reviewed by Ryan D. Schroeder, The University of British Columbia, Vancouver.

The notion of “scribal culture” has facilitated a novel phase in the study of biblical and ancient Near Eastern literature, signposted by works like David M. Carr’s Writing on the Tablet of the Heart: Origins of Scripture and Literature (2005), Karel van der Toorn’s Scribal Culture and the Making of the Hebrew Bible (2007), Eugene Ulrich’s The Dead Sea Scrolls and the Developmental Composition of the Bible (2015), and Sara J. Milstein’s Tracking the Master Scribe: Revision Through Introduction in Biblical and Mesopotamian Literature (2016).1

Integral to the new endeavour is the comparative use of evidence for scribal activity in one place and period to illuminate literary material in another. Often this means that manuscript remains from Mesopotamia or Qumran are used to throw light on the composition of the Hebrew Bible. The project tends to focus on textual-literary development and often implies a general scribal culture—i.e., a set of practices, institutions, mentalities, and so forth—that was shared across societies in the ancient Near East. In a 2017 monograph titled From Adapa To Enoch: Scribal Culture and Religious Vision in Judea and Babylon, Seth L. Sanders explores the ways that scribes thought about themselves, and the knowledge their texts contained, and emphasizes the distinctive features of different scribal cultures.

Sanders examines how communities of scribes represented and related to “scribal heroes,” legendary learned men who, in ritual and in myth, signified not only mastery of written tradition but knowledge of the very structure of the cosmos. By comparing the visionary journeys of the sage Adapa, Ezekiel, Enoch, and others, Sanders demonstrates regional and diachronic diversity in how scribes conceptualized their acquisition and transmission of divine knowledge. Sanders contrasts a Mesopotamian “ideology of continuity” with a Judaean “ideology of reinvention” (21–23), arguing that, although scribal modification to written tradition was common throughout the Near East, cuneiform scribes tended to make less drastic textual-literary alterations than did their Judaean counterparts who wrote on papyrus and later parchment. The latter medium is itself significant, for Sanders, because it was in the “Parchment Period” (ca. 5th century BCE) that Aramaic became the channel through which Babylonian scientific knowledge entered Judaean scribal consciousness (231–233). Thus, Sanders discusses at least three distinct “scribal cultures” (Babylonian, Judaean, and Aramaic), each with its own history. There was no one “scribal culture.”

The book has six chapters, plus an introduction, conclusion, bibliography, and index (280 pages total). The introduction sets the agenda by offering a brief survey of scholarship on scribal culture, a critique of existing scholarly attempts to describe the role of Babylonian culture (e.g., the tradition of King Enmeduranki’s heavenly journey) in early Judaean apocalyptic literature, and a concise overview of the arguments that follow. In Chapter One, Sanders attempts to “[present and analyze] every Sumerian and Akkadian text about the heavenly journey” (24). He covers the earliest Sumerian references to King Etana’s ascent, the Old Babylonian and later evidence for the myths of Etana and Adapa, and the reception of Adapa outside narrative contexts (e.g., in royal propaganda and incantations). Sanders traces through various historical settings, via datable cuneiform sources, Adapa’s enduring centrality as a scribal symbol of ritual, cosmic, and literary knowledge.

Chapter Two explores how the Mesopotamian scribe understood his relationship with Adapa. Sanders puts to good use the distinction between emic and etic perspectives in the study of religion, aiming to shake modern categories like “nature” and the “supernatural” in order to comprehend the “native ontology and cosmology” (99) of Mesopotamian scribes. Sanders discusses such texts as the exorcism series Utukkū Lemnūtu and the anti-witchcraft series Maqlû and observes that the cuneiform tradition was for Mesopotamian scribes an extension of, and thus a means of accessing, knowledge of the cosmos. Through ritual utterance, the scribe entered a stage of unseen, superhuman actors and played the part of the powerful primordial sage Adapa. The written incantation supplied scribes with a linguistic “mask” of Adapa, a guarantor of ritual efficacy.

In Chapter Three, Sanders turns his attention to Judaean scribal culture and the “plausibly datable [heavenly] visions” in the Hebrew Bible’s 6th–century BCE book of Ezekiel (103). A theme of the chapter is the inaccessibility of “religious experience,” which ever eludes scholarly scrutiny and which Sanders eschews in favour of the actual textual evidence for the language scribes used to describe their acquisition of divine knowledge. Ezekiel’s terminology (“the hand of the Lord”) reveals a shift in Judaean conceptualizations of revelation, Sanders argues, away from often obscure visions of a prior prophetic tradition (as seen, e.g., in Ezekiel 1) towards visionary journeys offering “exact knowledge of the physical world” (126; e.g., in Ezekiel 40–48). In Ezekiel, Sanders sees a trajectory in Judaean scribal culture that increasingly emphasized quantification and specification in physical and temporal terms.

Chapter Four shows how early Enochic literature represents a departure from the scribal culture behind most of the Hebrew Bible. The categorization and scientific calculation of works like the Astronomical Book build on but also go well beyond the biblical Priestly tradition, argues Sanders, and cannot be explained by processes of Hellenization alone (135–137). Early in the Second Temple period, Judaean scribes came to share with their Mesopotamian counterparts a common “Babylonian-Aramaic culture” (25) that took an interest in charting precisely the physical properties of a cosmos laden with signs pointing toward heavenly realities. The unfolding of history became comprehensible to Judaean scribes in terms of divinely ordained periods, measured in accordance with the stars (151). In early Enochic literature, Judaean scribes integrated Babylonian astronomy with the “biblical” tradition, embedding Aramaic learning into stories of the patriarchs.

Biblical scholarship commonly argues for (or simply takes for granted) Mesopotamian influence on Judaean scribes, often without establishing the historical circumstances of such influence. In Chapter Five, Sanders documents the clearest cases of Mesopotamian literary genres translated into West Semitic languages with a view to contextualizing historically possible interactions between Babylonian and Judaean scribes. Sanders surveys texts from the Late Bronze Age to the Hellenistic period, covering vassal treaties, royal inscriptions, legal documents, and astronomical and scientific works (biblical scholars may be particularly interested in Sanders’ treatment of Deuteronomy and the Vassal Treaty of Esarhaddon). Sanders emphasizes the role of Aramaic as the primary means of exchange between Babylonian and Levantine scribes and, by the end of the chapter, produces an account of the origins and development of a ubiquitous Aramaic scribal culture. From the ninth century BCE to the Hellenistic period, and especially with the loss of native kingship in most of the Near East, Aramaic became the imperial and scholarly koine—a cosmopolitan language not bound by any one local political identity (i.e., Aramean) and for that reason an apt medium for the transfer of universal (e.g., legal and scientific) knowledge (195–96).

In Chapter Six, Sanders asks the question of “how scribes could plausibly claim to know newly revealed things” (26, see also 198–199). Sanders considers the sectarian literature from Qumran (e.g., the Self-Glorification Hymn, the Hodayot, the Songs of the Sabbath Sacrifice) in order to understand how scribes described their place in the cosmos and their access to divine knowledge. After tracing a West Semitic motif of heavenly enthronement from Ugarit, through biblical writings, to the sect at Qumran, Sanders argues that, by the late Second Temple period, liturgical texts made available idealized personae through whom the human scribe could access knowledge of (and in) a heavenly sphere.

With From Adapa to Enoch, Sanders makes an invaluable addition to the growing literature on ancient scribes. He reminds scholars working in this area not to assume or slip into speaking of a monolithic set of practices and attitudes held in common by the creators and consumers of written texts. Sanders urges his readers to think in concrete historical terms about ancient literary activity and to recognize the distinctive character of different scribal cultures—and he models such an approach. By way of critique, there are points at which Sanders himself resorts to generalizing language that may distort historical reality, for example, where he implicitly extrapolates from the specific instance of sectarian liturgical texts to a more general “Judean scribal practice” (226). This move may find some support in the work of scholars like Seth Schwartz and Richard A. Horsley, who caution against sharp distinctions between scribal groups in the late Second Temple period.2 Yet Sanders himself shows that apocalyptic literature and the wisdom tradition represent two starkly different epistemologies (235), so even his phrase “Judean scribal culture” may obscure historical complexity, depending on the level of analysis. And whether the Dead Sea group can be taken as representative of a broader Judaean scribal habitus is a complex matter, not least in view of Emanuel Tov and others’ identification of a “Qumran scribal practice:” the sectarians’ distinctive set of linguistic and scribal conventions.3 On matters of script, unfortunately a distracting number of typographic errors found their way into Sanders’ final manuscript.

From Adapa to Enoch is an expansive study that touches upon topics ranging from the ineffability of religious experience to the materiality of writing, from Sumerian fragments in the Old Babylonian period to Aramaic scraps among the Dead Sea Scrolls. The bibliography is extensive, and the argumentation is highly creative. Sanders’ From Adapa to Enoch is a must read for scholars of scribal culture(s) and will offer insights to specialists in fields as diverse as ancient cuneiform scholarship, West Semitic epigraphy, prophecy and divination, early Jewish apocalyptic literature, and the Aramaic and sectarian Dead Sea Scrolls. Overall, Sanders is to be commended for this erudite contribution and for the many fresh ideas, questions, and conversations it is sure to inspire.

Ryan D. Schroeder, Killam Doctoral Scholar
The Department of Classical, Near Eastern, and Religious Studies
The University of British Columbia, Vancouver
Unceded Territory of the Musqueam People
ryan.dan.schroeder [at]

1 David M. Carr, Writing on the Tablet of the Heart: Origins of Scripture and Literature (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005); Karel van der Toorn, Scribal Culture and the Making of the Hebrew Bible (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2007); Eugene Ulrich, The Dead Sea Scrolls and the Developmental Composition of the Bible (Leiden: Brill, 2015); Sara J. Milstein, Tracking the Master Scribe: Revision Through Introduction in Biblical and Mesopotamian Literature (New York: Oxford University Press, 2016).

2 Seth Schwartz, Imperialism and Jewish Society, 200 b.c.e. to 640 c.e. (Princeton and Oxford: Princeton University Press, 2001); Richard A. Horsley, Scribes, Visionaries, and the Politics of Second Temple Judea (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2007).

3 Emanuel Tov, Scribal Practices and Approaches Reflected in the Texts Found in the Judean Desert (Leiden: Brill, 2004).


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