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.
Seth L. Sanders’s recent book, From Adapa to Enoch: Scribal Culture and Religious Vision in Judea and Babylonia puts forward a new history of cultural contact between Mesopotamian and Judean scribal cultures that culminated in the Second Temple Period. Sanders revisits the question of the shared features between Judean and Mesopotamian literature (such as ascent to heaven, heavenly visions, in addition to distinctively Babylonian astronomy and metrology), but he also offers two pointed methodological correctives for the study of ancient Near Eastern scribal cultures. The first corrective addresses the question of how to write a history of scribal culture; the second, addresses the question of how to approach religious experience in the ancient world.
With respect to scribal culture, Sanders argues that West Semitic (including ancient Israelite and Judean) and Mesopotamian scribal cultures should not be studied as parts of a homogeneous ancient Near Eastern whole that never truly existed (2). Rather, scholars should pay closer attention to the ways each individual culture changed and developed over the course of their respective histories, revealing whatever structural parallels may have existed in due course.
With respect to visionary religious experience, Sanders argues that texts, ancient or otherwise, are ill suited for accessing the nature of visionary experiences. Rather, From Adapa to Enoch makes an extended methodological argument for studying the self-conceptions of the scribal cultures in which visionary experiences were important sites of intellectual reflection and textual production (78). His goal is to produce a history of scribal attitudes towards religious experience, what he calls a “historical ontology and epistemology of first-millennium scribal cultures” (vi).
Although not divided by the author as such, the book proceeds in three parts: two chapters on the Mesopotamian Apkallu-sage, Adapa, two chapters on the development of the “apocalyptic sciences” in Judea, and two final chapters that emphasize the connections between Judean and Mesopotamian scribal culture and the impact of this contact on Judean notions of the scribal persona.
In chapter one, Sanders sketches the cultural trajectories of figures who ascended to heaven in Mesopotamian sources. He focuses on the figure of Adapa, an Apkallu-sage sometimes referred to as Uanna, Uan, or U-An-Adapa in Akkadian, and Oannes in early Christian citations of Berossos in Greek. References to Adapa extend from the Old Babylonian Period (c. 1800 – 1600 bce) to the Seleucid period in Uruk (c. 133 bce). Sanders argues that with the loss of native Babylonian kingship in the Persian and Hellenistic periods, references to sages like Adapa take on roles earlier associated with kings; sages “enter history” by appearing in king-lists alongside the antedeluvian kings (67). Adapa is even credited as the builder (usually a royal role) of a Seleucid temple in Uruk. Of all the Mesopotamian figures said to have ascended to heaven, Sanders argues that Adapa had the longest lasting cultural life in cuneiform texts.
In chapter two, Sanders examines ritual texts that mention Adapa and other ritual specialists. Sanders argues that we can better understand the attitudes of ancient Mesopotamian scribes toward the ideal Apkallu-sage, Adapa through careful attention to textual pragmatics. Here, pragmatics involve the ways that the meanings of a statement depend on its appropriate framing in different contexts. Sanders argues that the role of Adapa the Apkallu was an adoptable one, as seen in the claims of exorcistic incantation texts: “I am Adapa, sage of Eridu!” (76). Drawing on Erving Goffman’s idea of participation frameworks, Sanders argues that the precise wording of incantation texts allowed exorcists and diviners to inhabit the sage’s persona to access revealed knowledge and ritual skill (83). This way of relating to the ideal sage was a function of Babylonian scribes’ distinctive ontology: because the universe was structured linguistically, there was no meaningful separation between words and reality (99). Language, therefore, could be deployed effectively in omens, incantations, and prayers, and exorcists could meaningfully declare “I am Adapa!”
In the middle section of the book, Sanders shifts his attention to Judea. He argues in chapter three that the Judahite scribes responsible for Ezekiel facilitated the ongoing reinvention of heavenly visions in the prophetic tradition. Where earlier prophets made straightforward claims to have seen God (Isa 6:1-2; 2 Kgs 22:19), Ezekiel’s visions eschew unmediated sight of the divine (110). Sanders examines Ezekiel’s anxieties about the transmission of written prophecy and suggests that they encouraged a shift to immanent religious vision. These visions were marked by Ezekiel’s tradents with the introductory phrase, “the hand of the Lord,” in order to signal evidence of material and not merely cognitive contact with the divine (127). In Ezekiel’s temple vision (Ezek 40-48), the prophet is not told, but shown the precise measurements of the heavenly sanctuary. According to Sanders, for Ezekiel, revealed measurement was more solid, less subject to corruption, and thus was another way of addressing the anxieties of prophetic mediation.
In chapter four, Sanders evaluates the growing concern for measurement and quantification in the early Enochic literature, most notably the Astronomical Book, where an angelic mediator reveals the exact patters of the heavens to Enoch. These patterns derive from the much earlier Babylonian sciences, what Sanders hesitantly defines as a “system of exact knowledge of the physical world” (137). Sanders argues that these new applications of Babylonian sciences in the early Enochic literature were a natural extension of Priestly concerns with the detailed description of the physical world. Mesopotamia and Judea, according to Sanders, shared a worldview that embraced the discursive structuring of nature, the physical world, and the heavens (99, 129). Additionally, by the Persian and Hellenistic periods both Judea and Mesopotamia had lost native kingship, causing scribes in both cultures to expand their own roles in the literature they passed on and created. Monumental buildings in Mesopotamia were attributed to Adapa, and more and more Judean writing was attributed to early patriarchal scribal figures like Enoch, Levi, and Moses.
By the Hellenistic period, Judea and Mesopotamia shared a rich Aramaic, parchment-based scribal culture. In chapter five, Sanders takes up the question of cultural contact by surveying the known examples of Mesopotamian genres being transmitted into West Semitic language cultures. Methodologically, Sanders is concerned with identifying contact between people, an approach that he argues focuses on historical context, not judgments of genetic, literary dependence (166). Sanders highlights nine examples of cultural transmission stretching from a Late Bronze Age, Ugaritic tribute agreement modeled on Akkadian to the fifth-century bce Aramaic version of the Behistun inscription found at Elephantine. These examples could plausibly have been transmitted through court chanceries, oral performance of political and legal rituals, or the common use of documentary scribes (188). The Hebrew Bible and the Dead Sea Scrolls evince the cultural transmission of four major Mesopotamian genres: treaty, law, astronomy, and metrology (the distinctively Babylonian base-60 sequences of fractions and proportions). In each case, Judean scribes adapted Mesopotamian genres by recontextualizing them in narratives about revelation to a prophet or patriarch (Moses and Enoch) (159).
In the final chapter, Sanders explores the development of Judean scribal ontologies (a complement to his work on Babylonian ontologies in chapter 2), focusing on how people could claim to access revealed, secret knowledge and aspire to divine status (197). This is a question of the historical relationship between stories of heavenly ascent and revelation, like Enoch, and the cultural roles those stories made available to scribes through imitation (205). Sanders argues that texts from the Dead Sea Scrolls (primarily the Hodayot and the Community Rule) use exegesis to turn unique biblical figures, like the maśkîlîm of Daniel 11–12, into ritual roles that could be inhabited by members of the community (214). Unlike earlier Jewish literature in which pretension to divine status, through power (Isa 14:12–14) or knowledge (Ezek 28:6–9) was condemned, by the time the Hodayot were composed, adoptable roles allowed individuals to pursue a “systematic relation to God” through imitation (226). In the Self-Glorification Hymn and the Hodayot the speaker goes so far as to claim a place among the divine beings (אלים) (200).
Despite its title, From Adapa to Enoch is more concerned with the sagely and scribal roles these figures exercised than with Adapa or Enoch as mythic or literary characters. In the end, the question of Enoch’s cultural background in the figure of Adapa—unspoken but implied in the title—is of secondary concern. Of course, for Sanders, given Adapa’s enduring cultural role as a patron sage from the Old Babylonian through Hellenistic periods, he is a more likely cultural model for Enoch than any other (228). Ultimately, however, Sanders’s book is about something different: the scribal groups Adapa and Enoch embody.
From Adapa to Enoch is a wide-ranging book. This breadth makes it exciting to read, but not without challenge for its readers. While Sanders is equally at home in Old Babylonian ritual and Second Temple apocalyptic Jewish literature, some readers may find chapters on Adapa less accessible than those on Judea.
Yet Sanders’s book still has much to offer those invested in the comparative study of religion in Second Temple Judaism and ancient Mesopotamia. In constructing parallel histories of Mesopotamian and Judean scribes, Sanders is highly attentive to the contextual nature of language, the ways that context frame the use and function of texts beyond their semantic meaning (their pragmatics). Like his first book, The Invention of Hebrew, Sanders’s new book brings the details of literary pragmatics to bear on the history of literary genres. Genres change through continued use, as well as adaptation to new languages, cultures, and media. Sanders shows that the history of genre is enmeshed with political history as well as with the social and ritual roles that literary forms allow scribes to adopt. Genre history is cultural history. For Sanders, good cultural history—attentive to genre and scribal ways of thinking about the world—enables an independent analysis of Mesopotamian and Judean scribal cultures as distinct and distinctive. At the same time, attentive cultural history should also facilitate better cross-cultural comparative work grounded in the historical contact of people, not texts.
Mark Lester is a PhD Candidate in Hebrew Bible at Yale University .
 Erving Goffman, “Footing,” Semiotica 25 (1979): 1-29.
 Building on Jonathan Ben-Dov’s recent work on the history of the Babylonian sciences. Jonathan Ben-Dov, Head of All Years: Astronomy and Calendars at Qumran in Their Ancient Contexts, STDJ 78 (Leiden; Brill, 2008).
 Seth L. Sanders, The Invention of Hebrew (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2009).