January 2013

In b. Sanh. 4b, there reads:

Has it not been taught: ‘letotafoth [frontlets] occurs…in the Torah…four in all, to indicate [that four sections are to be inserted in the phylacteries]…R. Akiba maintains…the word totafoth itself implies four, [it being composed of] tot which means two in Katpi and foth which means two in Afriki (טט בכתפי שתים פת באפריקי שתים).

There’s been some discussion on Classics-L as to what validity, if any, there is to this. The most recent post suggests “This is an example of a d:rash daHuq (proof by play on words, which, in my opinion, should not be taken literally or very seriously).”

I somewhat agree that this “should not be taken literally or very seriously.” I find כתפי curious, though. It has been suggested that this means ‘Coptic’. There is, of course, the כפתרים of Gen 10.13 – descendants of Mizraim. If we were to accept that this is what was being referred to, we would have to assume both metathesis and loss of resh, though (however, ‘Caphtor’ appears as Keftiu elsewhere). Also, the Targums often have, for Caphtor, an assimilation to Cappadocia: קפוטקיא.

There really is nothing like טט meaning ‘two’, however, in Coptic. I guess the closest thing would be tōt, ‘to be joined’ – but this isn’t really close at all. (There is also tou, ‘five’ in Coptic; but this has no relevance.) In Ugaritic, ṯiṯṯ is the numeral for six; and in Qatabanian, ‘one’ is ṭd. [Late addendum: apparently there’s a Fula(ni) word for two, didi.]

In regard to פת: there’s really nothing like this for ‘two’ in the אפריקי language(s) – although there is ftoou for ‘four’ in Coptic (Černý, 266 – see Crum, 625). This is seen also in several branches of Chadic languages.


In Mark Smith’s On the Primaeval Ocean (2002) – his monograph on a Demotic cosmological text – he mentions a papyrus from the 21st Dynasty. This papyrus “depicts a winged serpent with four legs, a human head on its neck, and a jackal’s head at the end of its tail. Its wings enfold a sun disk containing a scarab. The accompanying inscription identifies this creature as mwt pꜢ nṯr ꜥꜢ ir nṯr.w rmṯ.w.” Smith translates this (or quotes from a translation) as “Death the great divinity who made gods and men” (p. 212).

Christiane Zivie-Coche, following this translation/interpretation, calls this a “unique instance of Egyptian religious iconography and literature…a tradition otherwise unknown to us…imaged death as a whole iconology [sic]” (2004: 158). And while the presence of the jackal’s head may indeed suggest Anubis – that is, death – it is hard to completely follow this view, in light of characteristic of the Egyptian goddess Mut (in modern conventions of Egyptian transliteration, mw.t) – “the mother of mothers, who has given birth to every god.” How death could be regarded as a creator seems illogical. Come to think of it, while Egyptian mythology isn’t my primary interest, from the amount I’ve looked into it I haven’t found Mw.t as a clearly deified ‘Death’ in Egyptian texts.

Interestingly, though, Christopher Hays has argued in several recent papers for an identification of the Egyptian Mut and the Northwest Semitic deity Mot, from Ugaritic texts and elsewhere (cf. especially “The Covenant with Mut: A New Interpretation of Isaiah 28: 1-22” in VT 2010). I think he’s way off here, though; and I may write about this in a future post.

Also, speaking of a future post, if we were to think that this indeed depicts Mut – and not a personified Death – the winged serpent would also requires some more comment (in addition to the jackal head-on-tail). Perhaps there’s actually some (wholly unique) cross-pollination between mw.t and mwt here.

Well, I had pretty much finished a post talking about how Takács, in an otherwise massive entry in his monumentally impressive dictionary of Egyptian, missed a crucial Semitic cognate for mr, ‘pyramid’ – “[o]ne of the most enigmatic words from an etymological viewpoint” – in Akkadian amaru, “pile of bricks.” This seemed pretty important, and I was excited to write about it. I even did a PDF search, just to make sure Takács hadn’t already covered it. As I’m finishing up my post, I was looking back through the discussion of mr, and somehow stumbled upon an entire section I had missed that indeed mentions amaru. No idea how I missed it, either…it was one of the very first sections.

Anyways, I don’t have much to add to this, other than the slightly interesting fact that ziggurats – the well-known Mesopotamian stepped pyramids – were made of baked mud bricks; whereas the Egyptian pyramids were limestone blocks. Thus, the Mesopotamian amaru and Egyptian mr are even more analogous than thought, in terms of basically meaning the same thing to the respective cultures (that is, Egyptian pyramids as “piles of stone blocks”).

Also, Takács cites Biberstein Kazimirski, Albright and others have appealed to another apparent Semitic cognate of amaru: Arabic ˀamārāt, either interpreted as “pierre qui indique la route” – that is, marker stones to indicate routes – or as “pyramidal heap of stones” (Albright). Although somewhat insightful, this is a contextually-dependent definition, Albright noting correctly that ˀamāra is “properly ‘mark, sign'” (Albright 1927: 218). But interestingly, in Genesis 31, Jacob makes a “heap” (גל) of stones as something of a stele – a boundary marker (31.52), and a sign of his “treaty” with Laban.

I know I just made a post saying that most stuff on Christianity was going to be on my new blog – but this touches on Hebrew Bible (and to some degree other ancient Near Eastern stuff) enough to where it’s probably at home here, too.

In Colossians 1.18 and Revelation 1.5, Christ is referred to as “the firstborn of the dead” (ὁ πρωτότοκος ἐκ τῶν νεκρῶν). This is interesting for a multitude of reasons – as evidence of a common formula circulating around the communities in which Colossians and Revelation were written, etc. – but most of all, because it’s one of the loci classici that best embodies what is perhaps Christianity’s major religious innovation: that the resurrection of a single human presages the general resurrection.

As such, this idea is seen as wholly unparalleled in the history of religions. Yet at every turn, early Christianity was informed by early Jewish beliefs – even its innovations seen through their lens. I wonder if it’s not possible to see hints of this in the phrase πρωτότοκος ἐκ τῶν νεκρῶν (and a variant of it in 1 Corinthians).

First, it’s surprising how infrequently scholars note how similar this phrase is to one appearing in the Book of Job: בְּכֹור מָֽוֶת, “the firstborn of Death” (Job 18.13). πρωτότοκος is the normal Septuagint translation of בְּכֹור (according to Aune 2003, used for it 131 times). Although τῶν νεκρῶν is different than מָֽוֶת (not to mention LXX has θάνατος here [though LXX Jb. 18.13 is otherwise corrupt]), perhaps the main impediment to scholars reading the passages together is that, in Job 18, the “firstborn of mwṭ” is clearly a demonic, anthropophagous figure: “the firstborn of death devours his limbs.”


Shifting gears ever so slightly, I mentioned that there’s a variant of ὁ πρωτότοκος ἐκ τῶν νεκρῶν in 1 Corinthians.

1 Cor. 15.20 reads “…Christ has been raised from the dead, the first fruits of those who have fallen asleep” (ἀπαρχὴ τῶν κεκοιμημένων). Although first fruits are, of course, a sacrificial offering – and elsewhere, Paul clearly understands Jesus’s death as a sacrifice (most explicitly in Rom. 3.25) – here, as in the aforementioned texts, “first fruits” in conjunction with κεκοιμημένων (=those who have died) still seems to refer simply to the newness, the novelty of Jesus’s resurrection, before the general resurrection. While Aune notes that ἀπαρχὴ is never used to translate בְּכֹור in LXX, it is used in conjunction with “firstborn” (πρωτότοκα) at LXX Ex. 22.29, and is clearly an analogous idea.

As Paul continues his discussion of death and resurrection throughout 1 Cor. 15, he personifies Death several times. The first instance of this is just a few verses later from 15.20, where he writes that the “last enemy to be destroyed is Death” (15.26). Finally, in 15.54, he quotes Isa. 25.8, “Death will be devoured” (κατεπόθη). It has often been noted that the Isaiah passage that Paul quotes may be building on ancient personifications of Death – though with an element of ironic reversal, as it usually Death (in the guise of the Semitic deity Mot and others) who does the devouring in ancient Near Eastern traditions.

Considering that Paul plays with this ironic reversal (as he does elsewhere), is it possible that he similarly appropriated the language of Job 18.13 – though not the LXX as we have it – in his utilization of the phrase ἀπαρχὴ τῶν κεκοιμημένων, but giving it an “opposite” twist (or even a polemical twist: that Jesus is the true firstborn/first fruits of Death)? The quotation of the Isaian “devoured” passage might give this additional credence.

This may help us view 1 Cor. 15.20, 26, and 54 more closely together, as expressive of Paul’s knowledge of traditions of Death’s personification. But how far does this principle extend?

Healey, in a paper called “‘Death is Swallowed up in Victory’ (1 Corinthians 15:54): Canaanite Mot in Prophecy and Apocalypse,” notes that

the old mythology of the Ancient Near East and Greece was not dead in the first century C.E. The victory of Bel and Nabu over Tiamat was still celebrated at Palmyra, and at least some of the Jews of Palestine made use of old mythological ideas, as is clear from Jewish apocryphal works and some of the Dead Sea documents… (Healey in Harland/Hayward 1999: 212)

While echoing Bauckham in his view that the Ugaritic material is far too distant to have directly influenced Paul, he reiterates that “the image of Death the Devourer was maintained in popular culture through the intervening centuries, surfacing from time to time in poetic and less rigorously orthodox works” (213).

Job, it might be noted, has a large concentration of instances of personification of Death – and hints of revival/resurrection. Could Paul’s remembrance of Job (esp. 18.13) have brought to mind his “inventory” of knowledge of personified Death, in all its Mediterranean and ancient Near Eastern guises – and even prompted him to think of the various things he did when composing 1 Cor. 15, a text full of death and decay of the body? Or is it the other way around?

What, then, is the relationship between the 1 Corinthians passage and the Colossians and Revelation phrase quoted earlier? Are there implications for the (contested) Pauline authorship of Colossians?

I don’t know how many people read this blog – probably less than 5 regularly – but from now on, all posts on non-Semitic culture/texts will be at another blog, http://culturaantiqua.wordpress.com/. When I write something about Christianity that heavily involves the Hebrew Bible, I may crosspost to here; but all future posts centered on Christianity will be on the new blog.