Reflections on Scribal Revision in Akkadian Texts

Document Type

Conference Presentation


Religious Studies

Conference Title

Society of Biblical Literature Annual Meeting


Society of Biblical Literature


San Diego, CA

Conference Dates

November 22-25, 2014

Date of Presentation

Fall 11-24-2014


Imagine an ancient Babylonian scribe who composes a new text and another who carefully transcribes a previously existing text verbatim to another tablet. Somewhere between these two ideal scribal activities is “revision”—an activity in which a scribe transmits an already-composed-text to another tablet but also makes textual alterations so that the result of his actions is a recognizably different text. In this contribution to the session, I will argue that “revision” implies a fundamentally comparative project for the modern scholar between the text of interest and a known or presumed text that is chronologically prior. As with other comparative endeavors, this literary comparison is fraught with difficulties though it also offers interesting returns. In light of what we know about Mesopotamian scribalism, I think it is safe to assume that scribes did not always intend to copy texts faithfully. But how do we identify elements of textual revision? How do we keep ourselves from inventing data through the projection of our own literary expectations? How do we interpret revisions within a text once they are plausibly identified? And what do our interpretations contribute to the broader work of ancient cultural recovery and reconstruction? Drawing on examples of well-attested Akkadian shuila-prayers and the several textual witnesses to the ritual for replacing the head of the lamenter’s kettledrum, I will demonstrate what we can learn about revision when we are on the firmest of textual ground, that is, when we have two actual texts to compare and, as in the case of the ritual for the kettle drum, when we possess unambiguous dating of each textual witness. A final example from Ludlul bel nemeqi Tablet IV will illustrate the potential problems in the comparative endeavor, even when two similar texts exist.

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