Gabbay on Sanders, 'From Adapa to Enoch: Scribal Culture and Religious Vision in Judea and Babylon'

Seth L. Sanders
Uri Gabbay

Seth L. Sanders. From Adapa to Enoch: Scribal Culture and Religious Vision in Judea and Babylon. Texts and Studies in Ancient Judaism Series. Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2017. xiv + 280 pp. $194.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-3-16-154456-9.

Reviewed by Uri Gabbay (Hebrew University of Jerusalem) Published on H-Judaic (April, 2018) Commissioned by Katja Vehlow (University of South Carolina)

Printable Version:

The book under review is an extraordinary example of a multidisciplinary endeavor, combining the fields of Sumerology, Assyriology, biblical studies, Qumran studies, apocalyptic literature, and religious studies. Not many books contain in their bibliography references both to Piotr Steinkeller’s studies on Sumerian literature and history of the third millennium BCE and to Gershom Scholem’s studies of Jewish mysticism, attesting to the wide range of sources handled insightfully and successfully by the author of this book.[1]

The book deals with the transmission of a mythological and apocalyptical figure from ancient Mesopotamian literature to the Aramaic literature of the Second Temple period, where it is attested especially in the Dead Sea Scrolls. This figure—Adapa in ancient Mesopotamia, Enoch in early Jewish writings—merits study not only in his own right but also as a figure that scholars used to reflect on their own scholarly activities and experiences. Seth L. Sanders presents a phenomenological comparison of Adapa and Enoch and also seeks to connect the literatures that deal with them historically, taking into account the different literary genres that characterize these scholarly communities, as well as the agent of transmission: Aramaic literature.

The book contains six chapters framed by an introduction and conclusion. Each chapter deals with a specific subject and stands as an independent essay. The introduction reviews earlier studies and approaches to the subject and presents the book’s methodology. It ends with a useful summary of the main arguments in each of the chapters of the book.

Chapter 1 deals with ancient Mesopotamian figures who ascended to heaven, and specifically with Adapa, who was associated with scholars and scholarly activity. The attestations of Adapa are sorted according to their various literary and social contexts. Chapter 2 investigates how ancient Mesopotamian ritualists identified themselves with Adapa, a phenomenon found in incantations. This leads to a wider discussion on the relationship between the natural and supernatural in ancient Mesopotamian religious thought and practice, and eventually explains how human scholars could associate themselves with the mythological figure of Adapa.

Chapter 3 shifts to the biblical accounts of Ezekiel’s visions. It emphasizes Ezekiel’s experience of being touched by the “hand of the Lord,” which initiates these visions. The chapter presents also another, new type of discourse relating to these visions, namely, the recording of the exact measurements of the temple seen by Ezekiel. The communication of dimensions in the context of visions would be adopted also in later apocalyptic scholarly literature, especially the book of Enoch. Chapter 4 deals with the celestial literature associated with Enoch known from the Second Temple period. It emphasizes the technical nature of this literature, which records knowledge in precise terms (for example, by incorporating measurements), marking a departure from earlier treatments of the physical world as seen especially in the biblical book of Deuteronomy. This technical and exact approach to knowledge is also featured in other Aramaic literature of the Second Temple period. The chapter argues that this new emphasis on precision was influenced by the priestly descriptions in the Hebrew Bible of the tabernacle revealed by vision to Moses.

Chapter 5, unlike the previous chapters, does not deal with the “what,” in other words, the content of apocalyptic and scholarly literature in Mesopotamia, in the Bible, and in Aramaic literature, but with the “how,” in other words, how this content was transmitted between these different societies. The chapter argues that Aramaic was the principle medium through which Mesopotamian knowledge was transmitted. Sanders demonstrates the coexistence of alphabetic Aramaic texts written on parchment alongside Akkadian cuneiform texts, especially during the Persian and Hellenistic periods in Mesopotamia. Furthermore, he examines established cases of the transmission of traditions from Mesopotamia to West Semitic texts, and argues that the mode of transmission varied over time: in earlier periods it was facilitated by the royal court and political institutions, but in later periods it became the province of documentary scribes, resulting in an Aramaic common scribal culture.

Chapter 6 deals with the relationship between the apocalyptic revelations seen by mythological figures such as Enoch and the scribes who wrote these revelations. The legitimacy of the scribes’ claim to possess the knowledge communicated in such revelations rests on their self-identification with the mythological figures, a phenomenon found both in Mesopotamia and in the Enoch literature. The book’s conclusion summarizes the main points dealt with in the book, emphasizing again the significance of Aramaic and parchment for the transmission of apocalyptic literature from Mesopotamia to early Jewish literature.

As noted above, this book offers a novel and fresh look at a very large corpus of texts written in different languages, and the author is to be praised for his excellent achievement. On a more critical note, the vast scope of the study may sometimes leave the reader struggling to connect the different themes dealt with in the book. To be sure, these themes are indeed connected to each other, and the introduction and conclusion spell these connections out; nevertheless, while reading the six chapters it was sometimes difficult, at least for me, to follow the thread that connects all of the topics and literatures dealt with in the book. Sometimes, it would be more effective to summarize certain long discussions that are necessary to the argumentation but nevertheless constitute a detour from the main focus of the book (see, for example, the discussions in chapter 5 on the parallels between the Assyrian vassal treaties and Deuteronomy, and between the Laws of Hammurapi and the Covenant Code of the book of Exodus). The importance of these discussions is not to be underestimated, but in uncondensed form they risk overshadowing the book’s general theme. Lastly, there are some inconsistencies and errors in the transliterations of Sumerian texts, and not a few typographical errors.

All in all, and despite the slight criticism raised above, this is an important book, both in content and methodology, that will serve as a foundation for future studies on the contacts between ancient Mesopotamian literature and the literature of the Second Temple period.


[1]. For example, Piotr Steinkeller, “Early Semitic Literature and Third Millennium Seals with Mythological Motifs,” in Literature and Literary Language at Ebla, ed. Pelio Fronzaroli (Florence: Universita di Firenze, 1992), 243-275; and Gershom Scholem, Major Trends in Jewish Mysticism (New York: Schoken Books, 1961).

Citation: Uri Gabbay. Review of Sanders, Seth L., From Adapa to Enoch: Scribal Culture and Religious Vision in Judea and Babylon. H-Judaic, H-Net Reviews. April, 2018. URL:

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