Babylonian and Assyrian Text Commentaries - Origins of Interpretation (GMTR 5)

Babylonian and Assyrian Text Commentaries - Origins of Interpretation (GMTR 5)


Eckart Frahm, Michael Jursa


Eckart Frahm


In his influential book on “the origin and goal of history,” written shortly after World War 2, the German philosopher Karl Jaspers claimed that the period from 800 to 200 BCE played a particularly crucial role in the intellectual history of man (Jaspers 1949). Jaspers argued that in the centuries in question, dubbed by him the “axial age,” thinking, for the first time in human history, became the object of itself. Jaspers distinguished China, India, and the eastern Mediterranean as the three regions where this dawn of consciousness took place, but declared with regard to the last area that it was only with the Hebrew prophets and the Greek philosophers that the axial  revolution really began. The earlier empires of the region represented a pre-axial state.
Up to this day, Jasper’s concept of an axial age has retained much of its attraction. Yet critical discussion of the concept during the past decades by scholars from different fields has made it increasingly clear that the civilizations of Egypt and Mesopotamia were not as unaffected by “axial thinking” as Jaspers had claimed. The present work deals with a group of Mesopotamian texts that display various features of the self-conscious reflection Jaspers characterized as axial: Babylonian and Assyrian commentaries or, to be more precise, text commentaries.
These commentaries are preserved in cuneiform script on more than 860 clay tablets from different archaeological sites in what is today the republic of Iraq. The tablets date to the period from the eighth to the second century BCE, an era that coincides exactly with Jaspers’s axial age. The commentaries represent efforts of Babylonian and Assyrian scholars to explain the whole range of Babylonian literary, religious, and scholarly works, from epics and rituals to legal, medical and omen texts. Using a plethora of hermeneutical techniques, the commentaries provide unique insights into many aspects of how the Mesopotamian mind, in its numerous avatars, actually worked.
If we regard hermeneutics as a set of intellectual tools that are applied to arrive at a better understanding of the world, it would be wrong to claim that the Babylonian and Assyrian text commentaries of the first millennium BCE are the earliest testimonies of “hermeneutical reasoning” in human history. Hermeneutics, in this most general sense, can be detected in almost every expression of the human spirit, and Mesopotamia, with its ancient lexical tradition that goes back to the birth of writing in the fourth millennium BCE, and its passion for divinatory quests, has left us large numbers of documents from much older periods to study it. But if we define hermeneutics more narrowly as pertaining to the interpretation of written texts, then Babylonian and Assyrian commentaries can truly be regarded as a “first.” Physically separate from the texts they interpret, these commentaries represent the earliest known corpus of exegetical treatises that explain cultural texts of canonical or semi-canonical status within a welldefined framework of hermeneutical operations. As meta-texts proper, they stand at the beginning of a tradition of “secondary literature” that features most prominently in the intellectual discourse of almost every major civilization. The significance of the Babylonian and Assyrian commentary tradition is thus threefold.     


First, the commentaries provide information on myriad aspects of Mesopotamian languages and civilization. It is thanks to a medical commentary from Babylonia, for instance, that we know how to pronounce the name Gilgamesh, normally written with a particularly enigmatic sequence of signs.7 Second, they make it possible for us to investigate not only the central texts of ancient Mesopotamia, but also the meaning assigned to these texts by those who read and studied them, a meaning social anthropologists designate with the term “manifest content” (Cryer 1994, 208). And finally, when approached from a comparative perspective, the commentaries from Mesopotamia emerge as the earliest testimonies to the long and complex history of textual interpretation, an intellectual pursuit practiced all over the world. To one particularly prominent chapter in this history, the exegetical tradition of rabbinic Judaism, they may even be related genetically.


Bibliographische Angaben

Reihe + Nummer: GMTR 5


ISBN: 978-3-86835-056-2


Erscheinungsjahr: 2011


Seitenanzahl: xi + 484 pp.

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