Journal of Hebrew Scriptures - Volume 7 (2007) - Review

Piotr Bienkowski, Christopher Mee, and Elizabeth Slater (eds.), Writing and Ancient Near East Society: Papers in Honor of Alan R. Millard. (LHBOTS, 426; New York and London, T & T Clark International, 2005). Pp. 319. Hardcover. US$ 135.00. ISBN 0567026914.

As the preface of this book correctly indicates, Alan Millard is one of those few scholars who have taken during their academic careers a very “holistic” approach, focusing on a wide range of subjects, in the case of Millard, Semitic languages, biblical studies and archaeology. Whatever we think of the disciplinary overspecialization that is current in our days, it should be recognized that the kind of scholar that Millard represents is nowadays (unfortunately) very atypical. So this commendable Festschrift is both a justified present to an exemplary scholar and a salutary contribution to the studies on writing in the ancient Near East.

This book contains most of the papers presented in a colloquium held in honor of Alan Millard in Liverpool in April 2003 (including a paper of Millard himself), with contributions of scholars that were unable to attend the meeting. The topic that connects all of these articles is ancient writing in the Near Eastern world, from the Cuneiform system to the Greek alphabet. Not only do these papers address the (mostly traditional) question of ancient writing, but they also concentrate on the sociohistorical framework that shaped the form and the ideology of the inscriptions.

Since the papers are loosely arranged in chronological order, the first contribution is the wide-ranging study of Pierre Bordreuil (“Migraines d’Épigraphiste”). Alasdair Livingstone’s work (“Taimā’ and Nabonidus: It’s a Small World”) focuses the attention on some newly discovered Taimanitic inscriptions that refer to local supporters of Neo-Babylonian king Nabonidus during the latter’s hitherto not well explained residence in Tayma, north-west Arabia. A significant feature in this inscription, and in the Taimanitic/Thamudic inscriptions in general, is that they are records of the activities of private individuals, a characteristic that deviates to some extent from the standard inscriptions of the ancient Near East. Following the very brief study of Dennis Pardee (“Dresser le bœuf à Ougarit”) on some inscriptions from Ugarit, stands M.C.A. Macdonald’s study on “Literacy in an Oral Environment”. This impressive 69-pages paper, certainly the most important contribution in this book, studies the different kinds of literacy in ancient and modern societies. By drawing examples from all over the world (e.g., 17th-18th century Sweden, the modern Tuareg of north-west Africa, or the Safaitic inscriptions of the Arabian peninsula), Macdonald scrutinizes the strong relationships that exist between the socioeconomical background of one’s society and its respective writing. Specifically, Macdonald states that “Literacy is not necessarily desirable (…) Nor is it a homogeneous state. It can exist in many degrees and many quantities. One can be literate in one’s second language but not in one’s mother language (…) Their scripts [here the author is referring to the Tuareg and Vai, but the conclusions are relevant to most non-literate societies have not penetrated the basic functions of their own communities –which therefore remain non-literate- and are incomprehensible to the wider literate societies in which their communities are encompassed” (p. 64). Following the steps of scholars such as Lord, Goody, Watt, and Ong, Macdonald’s paper will almost certainly become a landmark work in the studies of orality and literacy in ancient societies.

More akin to traditional studies, but nevertheless very comprehensive specific studies, are Wolfgang Röllig’s “Keilschrift versus Alphabetschrift: Überlegungen zu den epigraphs auf Keilschrifttafeln”, John F. Healey’s “The Writing on the Wall: Law in Aramaic Epigraphy”, David T. Tsumura’s “‘Misspellings’ in Cuneiform Alphabetic Texts from Ugarit: Some Cases of Loss or Addition of Signs”, and Graham Davies’ “Some Uses of Writing in Ancient Israel in the Light of Recently Published Inscriptions”. For scholars making research on the development of writing in ancient Israel, Davies’ paper is a comprehensive up-to-date review of published and unpublished inscriptions found in recent years in Israel (though a potential drawback is that some of the material presented may come presumably from the antiquities market). One of the most interesting findings is an inscription written on a bowl unearthed at Horvat ‘Uza, in the northern Negev, which Davies suggests, reminds some parts of the Book of Job. Interestingly, V. Sasson has recently reached quite similar conclusions (see his “An Edomite Joban Text. With a Biblical Joban Parallel”, ZAW 117 [2006]: 601-615).

K.A. Kitchen, with his distinctive colloquial yet very appealing writing, makes a wide-ranging survey on the writing in monuments of the ancient Near East (“Now You See It, Now You Don’t! The Monumental Use and Non-use of Writing in the Ancient Near East”). More in the line of the sociohistorical studies of writing are Daniel I. Block’s “What has Delphi to do with Samaria? Ambiguity and Delusion in Israelite Prophecy”, Christopher Tuplin’s “Darius’ Accession in (the) Media”, and K. Lawson Younger’s “‘Hazael, Son of a Nobody’: Some Reflections in Light of Recent Study”. The book finishes with the papers of George J. Brooke (“4Q341: An Exercise for Spelling and for Spells?”), John Davies (“The Origins of the Inscribed Greek Stela”) and Alan Millard (“Only Fragments from the Past: The Role of Accident in our Knowledge of the Ancient Near East”). The concluding chapter, a perfect illustration of Millard’s erudition, deals with a topic seldom addressed in such detailed terms: the importance of the fortuitous discoveries and the probabilities of survival of ancient documents for our understanding of the history of the Near East. Millard’s conclusion, which should apply for most cases in the Near East, is that in sites where there have been several phases of occupation, it is the last phases that will offer the largest amounts of remains and documents to the archaeologists and historians. Of course, this conclusion is not without consequences. In the case of the archaeology of Iron Age Palestine, it means that the archaeological evidence is strongly biased towards the last part of that period -i.e., those strata destroyed by the Assyrians and Babylonians (as Millard points out in p. 311)-, thus leaving an archaeological “dark age” in the 11th-10th centuries BC. This assumption is already known for those who remember the debate between Millard and J.M. Miller in the 1990s, in which the earlier defended the historicity of the Biblical narrative on king Solomon against the latter’s minimalist views.

As is usual with the volumes edited by JSOT Supplement Series, Writing and Ancient Near East Society is a carefully edited hardcover book, with a couple of useful illustrations and photographs complementing the text. As far as I can judge, there are not misprints in this volume, whereas the frequent transcriptions and transliterations of ancient inscriptions are free of errors. I recommend this book not only to those studying ancient writing systems, but also to anyone interested on knowing why and how these mostly non-literate societies produced those most fascinating systems of writing.

Juan Manuel Tebes, University of Buenos Aires, Argentine Catholic University, Argentine National Research Council