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Frahm, Eckart


Babylonian and Assyrian Text Commentaries. Origins of Interpretation.


Münster: Ugarit-Verlag 2011. XI, 483 S. 24,0 x 17,0 cm = Guides to the Mesopotamian Textual Record, 5. Kart. EUR 56,00. ISBN 978-3-86835-056-2.


Alasdair Livingstone

This compendious volume originated as a Heidelberg Habilitation thesis and now in a revised and expanded form provides for the first time a monograph devoted entirely to the subject of the Babylonian commentaries. The only other monograph on the topic is the Commentaires Assyro-Babyloniens sur les Présages (1933) of René Labat, which, as its title implies, only deals with a certain category of texts. The book was inspired by Volume XLI of the series Cuneiform Texts from Babylonian Tablets in the British Museum in which C. J. Gadd provided 50 plates of cuneiform copes of omens and commentaries, mainly the text known from its incipit as šumma ālu ina mēlê šakin, ›If a city is situated on a hill‹. As Eckart Frahm points out, apart from Labat, the only direct treatment of the topic is a short article under the lemma ›Kommentar‹ in the Reallexikon der Assyriologie und Vorderasiatisschen Archäologie which appeared in the early 1980s.
F.’s book is comprehensive in its contents and approach. He briefly places the Babylonian commentaries more widely in their intellectual place, while also offering a history of research, including an overview of Mesopotamian scholarship with its particular traditions of explanatory lexical lists, glosses and Sumerian texts equipped with parallel Babylonian translations. He then gives a typology of the commentaries followed by a discussion of the hermeneutic techniques to be found in them. A further section treats the actual sources of the comments provided in the commentaries, for example lexical texts, another text related to the text being treated, or simply an attribution to the teaching of ›the masters‹, who, unlike in Rabbinic commentaries, are seldom if ever mentioned by name. There then follows an extensive section in which the various texts that were equipped with commentaries, and the types of commentaries that they inspired, are outlined. The remaining part of the book is contextual, but in much greater detail than in the Introduction. Both library types and specific libraries are considered in detail. Finally there is an extensive section on the vexed question of the canonicity of Babylonian cuneiform literature.
Thus, one finds in this book is a detailed and learned exposition of the phenomenon ›commentary‹ in ancient Mesopotamia. F.’s task has not been made easier by the nature of the cuneiform texts as they have come down to us and the state of their edition at the present time. Few texts are complete and many are riddled with lacunae and whole lines that have been completely destroyed. It will still be many years before up-to-date and usable text editions of all the material is available and given this situation F.’s coverage and navigational skills are remarkable. The book is directed at Assyriologists, but the author is mindful of the existence of a wider audience. For example, on pp. 10–11 he offers a list, with explanations, of the customary names of specific Babylonian texts referred to in the book, names such as Alandimmu and Tummu bītu that though melodious may not be as redolent with meaning to all readers.
A key issue that demands treatment in its own right is that of hermeneutics and the relation between the Babylonian and Jewish traditions in this field. This is raised already on the first page of the Introduction which is pointed out that for Mesopotamia itself hermeneutics already plays a part in the late fourth millennium BC at the time of the invention of the earliest archaic writing that was to develop into cuneiform. A whole chapter of some twenty pages is devoted to explaining the actual hermeneutic techniques that occur in the Babylonian and Assyrian commentaries, synonyms, explanations of logograms, complex synonym chains, the pronunciation of syllabic signs of logograms, phonological variants morphological derivation and morphological variants, antonyms, paraphrases, figurative interpretation, etymology, and at etymology and, finally, gematria. This concise exposition of these techniques provides a useful guide unavailable elsewhere. In the case of gematria F. roundly states (77) that this is perhaps found less frequently in Mesopotamia than elsewhere in the ancient world (he also has examples from ancient Egyptian) as a result of the richness of other possibilities for manipulation offered by the cuneiform script.
F. is no narrow specialist. In a list within the Indices one counts references to over forty passages in Jewish and Christian texts for which the Babylonian commentaries may seem to have relevance, and his book also shows an awareness of classical scholarship. The book is well presented and well-organised and there are a few misprints (e. g. Ashurbanipal II on p. 436 and Cambride, MA on p. 443).
This, then, is a volume that deserves to be noticed and can be used with profit by scholars of the Old Testament.