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.


I apologize if this is a little inchoate in parts – I tried to clean it up a little, after my first draft.

Not too long ago, I was talking with a friend, and they said something along the lines of that the doctrine of inerrancy wasn’t really a thing before the New Testament, at the earliest. I kind of contested this; and, for reasons I’ll get in a bit, I actually first thought about the tabernacle “blueprints” given in Exodus 25 (and the temple blueprints shown to David in 1 Chronicles 28). Today, my thoughts turned to that conversation again, at the mention of 2 Timothy 3.15 – probably the locus classicus for inerrancy. In 2 Tim. 3.15, all “Scripture” (γραφή) is called θεόπνευστος, literally “God-breathed.” γραφὴ is, of course, a common designation in the New Testament (and elsewhere) for authoritative Jewish literature.

In addition to the 2 Timothy passage, one of the other most-discussed New Testament passages relevant to inerrancy is Matthew 5.18: “For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth pass away, not one letter, not one stroke of a letter, will pass from the law until all is accomplished” (NRSV). Although it’s certainly possible that we have, here, a stock rhetorical exaggeration, I think we can also detect the idea of the perfection of Scripture.

The Matthean passage (and its parallel in Luke 16) seems to be hinting at traditions that can plausibly be traced back to the Deuteronomistc laws themselves – cf. Deuteronomy 4.2 and 13.1 (=12.32 in other numbering systems): “Everything I am commanding you, you must be careful לַעֲשֹׂות; you must not add to it nor should you subtract from it” (Deut. 13.1). Further confirmation that this idea was on the radar of NT authors is found in Rev 22.19, “if anyone takes away from the words of the book…” (καὶ ἐάν τις ἀφέλῃ ἀπὸ τῶν λόγων τοῦ βιβλίου…), using the same word for “take (away),” ἀφαιρέω, as LXX Deut. 13.1 (=12.32) does.

Interestingly, however, Deut. 13.1 has clear parallels in ancient Near Eastern (and even Greek) literature. This is explored perhaps most fully in English language scholarship in a recent paper by Bernard Levinson (“The Neo-Assyrian Origins of the Canon Formula in Deuteronomy 13:1,” in Scriptural Exegesis: The Shapes of Culture and the Religious Imagination: Essays in Honour of Michael Fishbane [Oxford University Press, 2009]: 25-45). He connects the Deuteronomy text to, among other things, a vassal treaty of Esarhaddon (VTE § 4):

šumma abutu ša Aššur-aḫu-iddina šar māt Aššur tennâni tušannâni šumma Aššur-bāni-apli mar’a šarri rabi’u ša bēt ridūti

      . . .

You shall neither change nor alter the word of Esarhaddon, king of Assyria, but heed this very Assurbanipal, the great crown prince designate . . .

Levinson writes “The injunction [also] takes the form of a double prohibition against any change, using two synonyms in the Akkadian: enû, ‘to revoke or change’, and the D-stem of šanû, ‘to change’ (transitive), ‘to alter’” (bracketed word mine – SF).

It’ss this that’ll bring me back around to the “blueprints” of the tabernacle and temple.

The first part of Deut. 13.1 reads, in the Hebrew, אֵת כָּל־הַדָּבָר אֲשֶׁר אָנֹכִי מְצַוֶּה אֶתְכֶם אֹתֹו תִשְׁמְרוּ לַעֲשֹׂות (again, for clarity: “Everything I am commanding you, you must be careful לַעֲשֹׂות; you must not add to it nor should you subtract from it…”). This might be connected in a way with Exodus 25.9, which gives instructions for the construction of the tabernacle: כְּכֹל אֲשֶׁר אֲנִי מַרְאֶה אֹותְךָ אֵת…וְכֵן תַּעֲשֽׂוּ (“In accordance with all that I show you…just in this way תַּעֲשֽׂוּ”).

There are, of course, formulations similar to the first part of Deut. 13.1, throughout the Hebrew Bible (which, further, are clearly suggesting behaviors/actions). However, I wonder if, in conjunction with the second part of the verse, לֹא־תֹסֵף עָלָיו וְלֹא תִגְרַע מִמֶּֽנּוּ (“do not add to it or take anything from it”), and its parallels with ancient Near Eastern treaty formulas and other things, this might lead us to interpret 13.1 as a whole as calling for the “drafting/construction” of God’s “treaty” with his people – a treaty that must be as precise and, we might say, perfect, as the construction of the tabernacle and temple (a precision demanded especially by the latter being an earthly reflection of the heavens, the domain of the deity) (although cf. Exodus 31, for the former).


In light of the proposed connection here, is it possible that עָשָׂה in Deut. 13.1 is to be understood not as a call for the observance of the laws, as traditionally interpreted, but the actual process of recording/writing them? The main objection to this would be that similar language to 13.1a is found in Deut 16.12; 28.15; 30.8; Nu 15.39, in contexts where this must refer to the actual observance. Yet this still does not change the fact that there are also intriguing connections in vocabulary with Ex 25.9.

Taking this in an even more interesting direction, BDB cites several instances of the conjunction of עָשָׂה with שֵׁם, ‘name’: 2 Samuel 7.9, 8.13, and 1 Chron. 17.8 (cf. now Wright, ‘Human, All Too Human’ – Royal Name-Making in Wartime”). To this, I would add another especially relevant instance: Genesis 11.4. This is relevant in light of the provocative thesis of John T. Strong (and others), that the call of Babel’s workers to “make a name for themselves” (וְנַֽעֲשֶׂה־לָּנוּ שֵׁם) – as well as other motifs in the the Babel narrative – builds on imagery of the construction/drafting of victory steles (cf. Strong’s “Shattering the Image of God: A Response to Theodore Hiebert’s Interpretation of the Story of the Tower of Babel,” in JBL 127 [2008]: 625-634).

I note that steles, first and foremost, display the name of their “founder”; and thus the use of עָשָׂה might be even more plausibly understood, in certain rare contexts, as playing on the meaning of something like “make (an inscription).” Wright writes

[quote]In hundreds of building inscriptions throughout the ANE, a figure commemorates and perpetuates his own name by commissioning (or donating funds for) the construction of a temple to honor the name of his divine patron. See also the admonition in the Egyptian Instructions of Merikare (Papyrus St. Petersburg 1116A): “Construct [fine] monuments for the god, for it means the perpetuation of the name of whoever does it” (108–109).[/quote]

As a final thought, it’s interesting that מַעֲשֶׂה in Ps 45.1 is used in conjunction with סֹופֵר and עֵט – and in various translations is given as “verse(s)” (a nearly identical semantic analogue can be found with Greek ποίημα).


Regardless of whether there’s a literal intention of “recording/writing” here or not (despite what I’ve said, I’d definitely lean towards not), this is surely still the traditio-historical background of the motif here…only that the actual observance of the law is cast in similar language as stock conventions of inerrancy in writing.

Another late realization of something I didn’t touch on in my previous post (see below). In that post, I considered that there may be a (quasi-linguistic) parallel between the fountains (from מָקוֹר) of the deep, from which the waters issue in the Genesis flood, and the fountain (from מַעְיָן) of (postpartum) blood flow, in Lev. 12. I noted that “the ‘fountains’ appear again, at the end of the issuing of the waters in Gen 8.2: ‘the fountains of the deep and the windows of the heavens were closed’.”

Looking a little bit more closely at this last phrase, “the fountains of the deep and the windows of the heavens were closed” (וַיִּסָּֽכְרוּ מַעְיְנֹת תְּהֹום וַֽאֲרֻבֹּת הַשָּׁמָיִם), I remembered that Anne Kilmer, in her original paper proposing the “gestational” imagery of the Genesis flood, mentions how the word סָגַר is used both in Gen. 7, referring to Noah being “shut in” the ark, and in places like 1 Sam. 1, referring to Hannah’s womb being “closed” (read: her being unable to bear children). Although I haven’t looked that extensively into ideas of ancient Near Eastern anatomy and physiology, we might see the latter passage (1 Sam. 1) as evidence that, in cases of infertility, the “womb” was imagined as being literally closed – that, pardon the explicitness, there was something blocking (סָגַר) the semen from fertilizing the egg.

In light of this, it is perhaps even more relevant that, in the quoted passage from Gen. 8 (“the fountains of the deep…were closed”), the word used for “closed” is סָכַר, a homophonic duplicate of סָגַר. Although it is not explicitly said that the “fountain” of blood is (eventually) “closed”/”shut off” in Leviticus 12, this is certainly the implication; and the womb (=vagina) being imagined as “closed,” in 1 Sam 1 and elsewhere, might show that these are reasonably parallel ideas.

In a paper to be submitted soon, I elaborate on Anne Kilmer’s provocative proposal of the author(s) of the Genesis flood narrative prominently utilizing motifs associated with pregnancy/gestation — the centerpiece of her hypothesis being a correlation between the duration of the flood in Genesis, and the average length of human gestation (270-280 days). I suggest, further, that “beyond the flood period proper and into the intermediate period of the drying up of the waters before Noah’s exit from the ark, we might detect a…connection with the length of postpartum impurity set forth in the childbirth laws of Leviticus 12.”

Up until this point, I’ve considered that there was merely a conceptual parallel between the waters “abating” (from קָלַל) from earth, on one hand, and the cessation of the postpartum bleeding in Lev. 12, on the other. But I just realized that there may be a little more specific (quasi-)linguistic connection between the two texts that I hadn’t noticed before.

In Leviticus 12, an offering is made by a priest on behalf of the new mother, after her bleeding has stopped. Lev. 12.7 reads “[The priest] shall offer it before the LORD, and make atonement on her behalf; then she shall be clean from her מְּקֹר of blood” (NRSV). מָקוֹר is translated here as “flow” – used similarly in Leviticus 20 to refer to menstruation – and yet, more literally, it means “fountain.”

Is it possible to see here a connection to the “fountains of the great deep” (מַעְיְנֹת תְּהֹום רַבָּה) that the floodwaters issue from, in the Genesis flood narrative (7.11)? Granted, the word for “fountain” there, מַעְיָן, is not the same word used in Leviticus; and yet the presence of similar terminology in both texts is interesting (the “fountains” appear again, at the end of the issuing of the waters in Gen 8.2: “the fountains of the deep and the windows of the heavens were closed” [סָכַר]).

Last night, a friend and I were talking about some Arabic linguistic stuff and, in the course of the conversation, he asked me about words for ‘letter’ (as in ‘letter of the alphabet’) in other languages. I first brought up Greek γράμμα, gramma, and γραφή, graphē, after which he told me that the Arabic word for letter is حَرف, ḥarf. I think both of us immediately realized how similar graphē and ḥarf sound. The discussion then shifted to how Greek gamma is often used to translate ḥet (Arabic ḥāʾ) (and vice versa) in ancient texts.

A little digging showed that one of the earliest uses of حَرف for ‘letter’ was by Sībawayh, a Persian grammarian (of Arabic) of the 8th century. A cursory look at the lexicons shows that there was no cognate Persian word at the time. Although we might then logically assume that ḥarf is a loanword from Greek, there’s an even deeper connection between the two words to be explored.

The Arabic word حَرف has a broader semantic range than just ‘letter’, and has cognates in nearly all branches of Semitic. For example, ḥarf also means “sharp edge, cutting edge of a knife or sword” – a definition that we can see as early as Q 22.11. This connects clearly with חֶרֶב, “sword, edge,” a word common in Biblical Hebrew.

The connection with γράφω, to ‘scratch, graze’ (also γραφή, “representation by means of lines”), can be seen even more clearly in texts like Exodus 20.25: “But if you make for me an altar of stone, do not build it of hewn stones (גָּזִית); for if you use a chisel (חרב) upon it you profane it.” Similar to this, Gamkrelidze and Ivanov, in their derivation of Greek γράφω from Proto-Indo-European *(s)krebh, “scratch, scrape, draw,” cite Iliad 17.599-600, “but the spear of Polydamas had grated the bone’s edge.”

In light of other ancient Semitic cognates such as Ugaritic ḥrb ‘sword’ (and perhaps Akkadian ḫarbu, ‘plow’) we may have here another word to add to the early Indo-Semitic lexical koinē.

This is a preliminary “catalogue” of texts in early Judaism and Christianity (mainly noncanonical) where the dimensions of gigantic angels, demons, or simply monstrous beings are given. This is a work in progress, to which I’ll be adding more material over the next little while. Currently it only contains entries where concrete measurements are given (usually in cubits). It’s also arranged somewhat chronologically, based on the best dating of these texts—although there are some uncertainties (for example, I didn’t quite know where to put the Book of the Watchers, in light of the uncertain textual history of the passage).

In the next post, I’ll be adding rabbinic texts and entries from the ‘merkabah’ literature. I need to find out more about the giant angels in the “Ascension of Moses” (distinct from the Assumption/Testament of Moses?). I might add the giant men in the Gospel of Peter, even though no concrete measurement is given (other than their height extending to the sky).


Og in Deut 3.11 – 9 cubits tall?

“Now only King Og of Bashan was left of the remnant of the Rephaim. In fact his bed, an iron bed, can still be seen in Rabbah of the Ammonites. By the common cubit it is nine cubits long and four cubits wide.” (NRSV)

Beelisah/Belisath in Testament of Judah 3.7 – 12 cubits tall

“And Jacob my father killed Beelisah, the king of all kings, a giant in strength, twelve cubits high.” (Hollander and de Jonge 1985: 190)

The primordial giants in (several recensions) of the Book of the Watchers (1 En 7.2) – 300 or 3,000 cubits tall

Nickelsburg (2001) opts for a reading of 1 En 7.2 that follows the Chronography of Syncellus (9th cent): “And they conceived from them and bore to them great giants. And the giants begat Nephilim, and to the Nephilim were born Elioud. And they were growing in accordance with their greatness.” (2001: 182)

However, here in Codex Panopolitanus (5th/6th cent), the giants’ size is given at 3,000 cubits; and in Ethiopic mss., given as 300 cubits. Black, in his text of 1 En, followed the reading of Panopolitanus, “And they became pregnant by them and bore great giants of three thousand cubits” (28). However, Nickelsburg thinks these readings are secondary glosses (185). The Aramaic texts of the Book of the Watchers from Qumran (4Q201-202) contain virtually nothing of 7.2.

The angels who reveal the Book of Elchasai (Hippolytus, Haer. 9.13.2–3) – 96 miles tall

Hippolytus, in his Refutation of All Heresies (~230 CE), mentions a heretical teacher Alciabiades, who claimed that his ‘book’ of teachings had been divinely revealed:

“It had been revealed by an angel whose height was 24 schoeni—that is 96 miles—and whose girth was 4 schoeni; from shoulder to shoulder he was 6 schoeni; his footprints were three and a half schoeni long—that is fourteen miles—the breadth being one and a half schoenus. With him was a female whose dimensions, he said, accorded with those mentioned, the male being the Son of God and the female was called ‘Holy Spirit.’” (Luttikhuizen in Marjanen/Luomanen 2005: 336)

Beliar in the Questions of Bartholomew 4.13 – 1,600 cubits long

The Questions of Bartholomew is a text (with ‘Gnostic’ hints?) possibly from the 3rd or 4th cent CE. (Elliott, 662). The apostle Bartholomew asks Jesus to reveal to him various “mysteries,” including showing him “the adversary of men.” Beliar is brought up from Hades: “And the length of him was one thousand six hundred cubits and his breadth forty cubits … and his mouth was as the gulf of a precipice, and one of his wings was four-score cubits.” [note: there are textual variants these sizes in the Latin and Slavonic versions]

Adam and Eve in The Book of the Resurrection of Jesus Christ by Bartholomew the Apostle – 80 cubits (Adam) and 50 cubits (Eve) tall

The Book of the Resurrection of Jesus Christ by Bartholomew is a Coptic text possibly from the 5th-6th century, and “may be deemed to come from a different cycle of tradition from the Quaestiones Bartholomaei.” (Elliott, 653). Elliott summarizes this text, based on James’ version of a London ms:

“a series of hymns sung in heaven, eight in all, which accompany the reception of Adam and the other holy souls into glory. Adam was eighty cubits high and Eve fifty. They were brought to the Father by Michael. Bartholomew had never seen anything to compare with the beauty and glory of Adam, save that of Jesus.”

The Antichrist in the Greek Apocalypse of Ezra 4.30-31 and the (early medieval) Apocalypse of John (Apokalypsis tou Hagiou Ioannou) – uncertain size, although very large

The Apocalypse of Ezra is a Greek text preserved in a fifteenth century manuscript. It is of uncertain date, with the only chronological marker suggested in Charlesworth’s OTP being a possible mention of it in the Canon of Nicephorus (9th cent CE). The Antichrist is described here as having a mouth one cubit in length- and “his teeth are a span long, his fingers like scythes, the soles of his feet two span.”

This line is identical to one that appears in the Greek Apocalypse of John – a text possibly dating to the fifth century CE (Elliott 1993: 684), edited by Tischendorf. Its description of the Antichrist is identical to that of the Apocalypse of Ezra (see Tischendorf, Apocalypses Apocryphae, p. 74).

The eminent scholar of Ethiopian studies/languages Wolf Leslau, in his Comparative Dictionary of Ge’ez, gives the definition of kwannana as to “regulate, rule over, have dominion, govern, judge, pass judgment, pass sentence, plead, convict, condemn, punish…” In discussing the etymological origins of the word, Leslau rejects Grimme’s suggestion (1901) that it from Hebr כנן (‘establish’), as this is a polel stem. He settles for the possibility that it may be taken from “Semitic kwn (Heb. ken, Syr. kawwen ‘erect, admonish’) with reduplicated last radical.”

I’d like to suggest what is, in my view, a better candidate: it is instead taken from חנן. The hithpael of חנן, to “ask for/seek grace, kindness; to plead,”* coheres well with the meaning of takwanana, “plead, press for justice.” The hithpael here merely “[seeks] what the simple stem designates”*: “to show favor/be partial to,” which puts us closer to the idea of “judgment” that most of the meanings of kwannana seem to revolve around—at least those instances in the Hebrew Bible where !nx is used in a context where one figure or one group is favored over another, or is beseeching someone to favor them over another.

Yet all of the occurances of חנן in the Hebrew Bible—if accurate to say that some of them have ‘judicial’ hints—only have connotations of positive judgment. It’s not clear whether any more general judicial connotations can be teased out of this.