Scribal Craft in Visions of Levi and Mesopotamian Lexical Lists
At the end of the nineteenth century two large portions of Visions of Levi (so-called Aramaic Levi Document) were found in the Ezra Synagogue in Cairo. Seven fragmentary Qumran manuscripts (1Q21, 4Q213, 4Q213a, 4Q213b, 4Q214, 4Q214a, 4Q214b), dated to the early and late Hasmonean period, mostly overlap with the Genizah documents and with their Greek translation found in one of the Mt. Athos manuscripts (Ms. Koutloumousiou 39). This priestly composition contains a large didactic section in which Isaac teaches Levi priestly law. One section (31–47) is dedicated to different quantities of wood, salt, frankincense and other material used in the preparation of the sacrifice. A detailed analysis of the numbers that express different weight and capacity measures, shows that these numbers are presented according to a certain numerical pattern that finds its antecedent in Babylonian lexical lists; the earliest tool of encyclopedic learning used in scribal education in Babylonia since the most remote periods, to the extinction of the cuneiform culture.
Thus, Jewish priestly education inherited from the Babylonian lexical lists some numerical schemes based on the sexagesimal counting system (i.e., a numerical system with sixty as its base), and the Levitical author presented it as part of priestly knowledge. Once Levi learns how to prepare the holocaust offering and accompanying meal offering together with the fraction notations (14–61), then in his wisdom poem (82–98) he instructs his children/students not to neglect the study of scribal craft (88, 90, 98). The priestly education system is characterized as belonging to the scribal type of knowledge, which indicates a strong Babylonian background and a clear link with the pseudepigraphic book of 1 Enoch.
The Aramaic Astronomical Book and Tablet 14 of the Enūma Anu Enlil
The lunar calculation, found in the Astronomical writings of 4Q208 and most of 4Q209, is a composite text that describes the lunar visibility periods during the night and during the day according to a repetitive two-month scheme, in which the full moon occurs on day fourteen of the month. Each lunar day in this schematic monthly disposition is divided into four parts in accordance with the changing pattern of lunar visibility. In this way the nychthemeron (a period of twenty-four consecutive hours) is divided into four parts in the waxing (col. B: from sunset to moonset; col. D: from moonset to sunrise; col. E: from sunrise to moonrise; col. H: from moonrise to sunset) and in the waning phase (col. D: from sunset to moonrise; col. B: from moonrise to sunrise; col. E: from sunrise to moonset; col. H: from moonset to sunset). Each column uses the same basic fraction 0.5/7 (= 1/14) as the factor of arithmetical progression of lunar visibility or invisibility during the night and during the day; the numerical entries oscillate between 0.5/7 and the integer of 1. One additional column (col. F) uses the same basic fraction 0.5/7 to express the progression or diminution of the illumination of the lunar surface. Since both in the waxing and in the waning period column F stands after the column that indicates the period of lunar invisibility on the sky, so one has to assume that the illumination of the lunar surface is computed, not observed. It appears that the whole schematic computation of periods of lunar visibility is a numerical schematic construction, rather than an actual record of the lunar movement.
Once the text of 4Q208 and 4Q209 had been properly interpreted, it was possible to establish its dependence on the Babylonian astrological literature. Tablet 14 of the Enūma Anu Enlil (hereafter, EAE) ends the first section of the text dedicated to divination based on the periods of lunar visibility. It contains four different numerical tables, the first two of them (Table A and B) indicate periods of lunar visibility during the ideal equinoctial month composed of thirty days. Although the tables compute these periods with the use of Babylonian arithmetical system and with the application of two different methods, the computed periods correspond to those found in the Aramaic calculation. In the waxing period, Table A presents the lunar period from sunset to moonset, which corresponds to col. B in the Aramaic text. In the waning phase, the same cuneiform table divides the night into two periods: from moonrise to sunrise (part I) and from sunset to moonrise (part II); such a division corresponds to col. D (= Table A, part II) and col. B (= Table A, part I) in the Aramaic text. Table B of EAE Tablet 14 describes the lunar period from sunset to moonset in the waxing phase and from sunset to moonrise in the waning period; such a division of the night corresponds to col. B (waxing phase) and col. D (waning phase) in the Aramaic text from Qumran. Although both Table A and B use the fraction 1/15 as the factor of arithmetical progression, the Aramaic text prefers the fraction 1/14 (= 0.5/7) either for theological reasons (number 7 in the denominator), or because that fraction quite closely reflects the daily motion of the moon. Most of the remaining periods of lunar visibility preserved in the Aramaic calculation find their corresponding lunar measurements in the text of Babylonian astronomical diaries, that is regular observations of the sky.
The Myth of the Fallen Watchers and Late Babylonian Social Context
The Jewish appropriation of some parts of Babylonian scholarship evidenced in Visions of Levi did not take place in a religious and cultural vacuum. Inspired by the biblical account, the priestly author of the Aramaic document dedicated to Levi, included into the literary framework of Isaac’s didactic instruction (13–61) a section inspired by Akkadian lexical texts (31–47). Thus, he presented the arithmetical knowledge of Babylonian origin as making part of Jewish patriarchal and didactic tradition. The same process can be detected in the Ethiopic Astronomical Book, where chapter 81 points to Enoch as the recipient of “angelic” astronomical knowledge and its tradent to his sons/pupils.
The creation of the Jewish religious and narrative framework for some elements of Babylonian scholarship did not solve the problem of the origin of Babylonian knowledge that, although transmitted in a polytheistic context, was clearly superior to the Jewish religious tradition, at least in its description and explanation of natural phenomena. It is reasonable to assume that the myth of the fallen Watchers (1 Enoch 6–11), a text at least contemporary with Aramaic Astronomical Book and Visions of Levi, contains a critique of Babylonian knowledge and of its main representatives.
The fallen Watchers of the myth are presented as sinful and rebellious angels, who transmit to humanity arts and crafts that cause violence and lawlessness on earth. The list of crafts taught by Shemihazah and other angels in 1 En. 8:3 (4Q201 1 iv 1–4; 4Q202 1 iii 2–3) is easily divided into two groups. The first six items include spell-binding, cutting of roots, loosing of spells, sorcery, magic, and sapiential skills. Syncellus’ Greek translation adds to the first part of the list an additional expression, not attested in Aramaic, that is “natural impulses against the mind,” which implies that Shemihazah teaches also different types of psychological disturbances that might affect man. The next six items in the Aramaic list indicate various elements of celestial divination, that is signs of lightning flashes, signs of the stars, signs of shooting stars, signs of the earth, signs of the sun, signs of the moon.
In the context of knowledge transmission present in the myth, the question concerning the social background of this type of knowledge has to be raised. In the Persian and Hellenistic period in Babylonia, there existed only one group of professional priestly scribes, astronomers, astrologers and physicians, who occupied themselves with all the crafts listed in the Enochic text. These scribes were called in Akkadian āšipu, that is “enchanters,” and in the Late Babylonian period they not only practiced medicine linked with spells, magic, loosing of spells and cutting of roots for medicinal purposes, but were also versed in mathematical astronomy, celestial and terrestrial divination, and star watching in general. Thus, it is reasonable to assume that the author of the Enochic myth disguised the priestly tradents of the Babylonian sciences as fallen Watchers in order to denigrate their role in the transmission of scribal knowledge.
Further Reading on Topics and Texts Treated in this Article
J. Ben-Dov, Head of All Years: Astronomy and Calendars at Qumran in Their Ancient Context, STDJ 78, (Leiden: Brill, 2008).
H. S. Kvanvig, Primeval History: Babylonian, Biblical, and Enochic: An Intertexual Reading, JSJSup 149 (Leiden: Brill, 2011).
G. Lambert, The Background of Jewish Apocalyptic (London: The Athlone Press, 1978).
M. Popović, Reading the Human Body: Physiognomics and Astrology in the Dead Sea Scrolls and Hellenistic-Early Roman Period Judaism, STDJ 67 (Leiden: Brill, 2007).
J. C. VanderKam, Enoch and the Growth of an Apocalyptic Tradition, CBQMS 16 (Washington, DC: The Catholic Biblical Association of America, 1984).
Henryk Drawnel is Professor of Second Temple Literature and Jewish Studies in the Biblical Studies Institute at the John Paul II Catholic University of Lublin, Poland. His published works include articles and monographs on the Qumran Aramaic texts, including An Aramaic Wisdom Text from Qumran: A New Interpretation of the Levi Document (Brill, 2004) and The Aramaic Astronomical Book (4Q208-4Q211) from Qumran: Text, Translation, and Commentary (Oxford, 2011).
The Ancient Jew Review and Trinity Western University Dead Sea Scrolls Institute forums and reviews commemorating the 70th anniversary of the discovery of the Qumran scrolls were edited by Dr. Andrew Perrin (Trinity Western University), Dr. Andrew Krause (University of Münster), Dr. Jessica Keady (University of Chester), and Spencer Jones (Trinity Western University).
For news, events, and research opportunities at the Trinity Western University Dead Sea Scrolls Institute follow Twitter.com/twudssi and Facebook.com/twudssi.