New Approaches to Commentary Formation in Ancient Mesopotamia

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Zachary Wainer



Assyriologists who have studied Mesopotamian commentary formation have drawn upon ideas from scholars of religion in treating the creation of a static canon at the end of the second millennium bce as a necessary precondition for the emergence of cuneiform commentaries. The present contribution argues against the idea that Mesopotamian commentaries emerged in response to a closed canon by marshaling evidence from Mesopotamian divinatory compositions, including the celestial-divinatory series Enūma Anu Enlil and its associated aḫû, or “extraneous” tradition, as well as the extispical treatise Bārûtu. These compositions illustrate that commentaries could be written about texts that were still fluid and malleable in ancient Mesopotamia. Moreover, a brief look at the phenomenon of inner biblical exegesis in the Hebrew Bible supports the idea that texts need not be unchanging to be the subject of interpretation, whether in ancient Mesopotamia or elsewhere. In response to these conclusions, I outline an alternate theory for Mesopotamian commentary formation that eschews the importance of a closed canon and stresses instead ideas of scholarly bilingualism, divination, authority, and textual decorum in ancient Iraq.

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