The Babylonian Talmud and Late Antique Book Culture

Written by: Monika Amsler


Have you ever wondered how ancient data management worked? How ancient authors of books that we would term encyclopedic managed their data, for example? Truth is, we don’t know. No ancient author bothered to explain their data management for posterity. Since ancient authors are otherwise quite boastful about even minor innovations, it seems that the management of literary texts was nothing innovative, but rather common and well-known, at least among the people who had the leisure to compose and read such books. These were often the same people who owned land and had employees. For the patron to get a sense of the pecuniary situation on his estate, the employees had to collect receipts and consolidate them-per day, per week, per months, and finally per year. Again, we do not know this because someone took the pains to explain the (seemingly) obvious to posterity. We know this because of a rare find of an archive in the Egyptian Fayum area, the “Heroninos archive,” dating to the third century CE.

How can this knowledge about ancient bookkeeping be transferred to multi-entry book production? Pliny the Elder, the author of the impressive 36 volume (+ 1 volume introduction) work Natural History, tells us that he toiled through 2000 books to gather material for 20 000 entries (the real number is close to 34 000) on natural substances. Following the steps of the bookkeeping process, Pliny’s final composition would correspond to the annual financial statement, the individual, thematically arranged books to the monthly statements, and the entries to the weekly statements. The individual information on certain topics would correspond to the receipts. Since Pliny says that he purposefully read books to gather information, two scholars, Alfred Locher and Rolf Rottländer (1985), have suggested that Pliny (and/or his servants) produced “receipts” with select information and then stored them according to keywords. Once Pliny had finished toiling through the books on his list, he started composing entries based on keywords. The organization of such snippets of information into entries, maybe on wooden tablets, broken pottery shards (ostraca), papyrus scraps, was similar to the process of pulling together all the receipts from a day and arrange them according to assets.

This procedure, which is very reminiscent of the process of constructing a picture out of differently colored stones, a mosaic, would leave frictions in the text, since the individual pieces of information, even though belonging to the same subject, were written by different authors and for different purposes. Indeed, the frictions are clearly present, with Pliny trying to mediate between sometimes contradictory information and rough breaks. Sometimes, information is also misplaced. A plant may have an entry under its Greek and its Latin name, or ambiguous terms such as electrum, which can refer to an alloy of silver and gold or to amber, challenged the system and ended up in the wrong place. Such mistakes in the classification process could only be avoided if someone from the team (and indeed, with the size of the project we should envision a team) remembered the original literary context of the excerpt by the time it was used to craft an entry. But this may have been months, even years after the information had been excerpted and stored.

Many late antique books are such compilations of excerpts. So much so that we get the impression that the aesthetics of the popular mosaics bore on the aesthetics of texts—a word, which derives from the Latin textus, fabric. The tractates of the Babylonian Talmud, a compilation crafted by Jewish scholars in Sasanid Mesopotamia approximately in the sixth century CE are likewise called webs, massekhot in Hebrew. Like Pliny’s Natural History, the Talmud is structured by short commentaries that arrange information associatively. Unlike the Natural History, the Talmud does so not follow a freely chosen range of topics, but lemmas taken from another text, the Mishnah, a second century work that originated in Palestine. And the Talmud adds another feature in that it arranges the material in a way that gives the impression of an ongoing dialogue between different interlocutors, the rabbinic sages. To make uneven ends meet, an anonymous voice chimes in and adds a clarification, explanation, or raises a question that allows to bring in the next excerpt. The discursive arrangement is already known from Athenaeus’ Learned Banqueters (second/third century CE) or Macrobius’ Saturnalia (fifth century CE). Both authors arrange the excerpts they collected from earlier works to form a dialogue between guests at a symposium. This is achieved in that the “guests” constantly quote others (often poets) or relate the excerpted pieces of knowledge themselves. The discussion follows certain topics associatively, reflecting the keywords that guided the author’s collection process, but it is not structured in an entry-like form.

Already the Mishnah, the work on whose structure the Talmud is based, introduces a distinction between “written Torah” and “oral Torah.” The written Torah refers foremost to the five books of Moses, but also to the Hebrew Bible as a whole. The “oral Torah” comprises rabbinic tradition as collected in the Mishnah or the Babylonian Talmud, for that matter. The discursive structure of the Talmud gives the impression that “oral Torah” was not just different from “written Torah” in its content and in the fact that it did not form a closed canon, but that it was really non-written knowledge, and that the Talmud was transmitted orally. In The Babylonian Talmud and Late Antique Book Culture, I argue that the material that people commonly used for writing, tablets, ostraca, leaves, and papyrus scraps, is very distinct from the parchment of the scrolls used for books from the Hebrew Bible. “Written Torah” could differ from “Oral Torah” in many ways, one of which concerned the material on which it was written.

Although the text of the Talmud and other late antique compilations are now firmly embedded like tesserae in mortar, the original tablets, ostraca, and other small pieces of writing can be uncovered, if attention is paid to the shape of the text and the pieces out of which it was constructed. It may then be possible to connect the excerpts that belonged to the same source. Older treatises and compositions may be reassembled in that way. What is most interesting is the fact that the material used for everyday writing already anticipate a use as excerpts in other literary contexts. The confined space of these writing supports also fosters the concise writing style, which can be observed in the Babylonian Talmud and late antiquity in general. The writing material clearly inspired the time’s text aesthetics, an aesthetic perception that is also met by mosaics.

The Babylonian Talmud and Late Antique Book Culture by Monika Amsler

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About the Author: Monika Amsler

Monika Amsler is a Postdoctoral researcher in the Department of Ancient History at the University of Bern. A historian of ancient religion, she is the editor of Knowledge Construction in Late Antiquity, published in the Trends in Classics Supplementary Volume Series....

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