History of Research

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Frahm, E. and Jiménez, E., 2013, “History of Research,” Cuneiform Commentaries Project (E. Frahm, E. Jiménez, M. Frazer, and K. Wagensonner), 2013–2024; accessed June 24, 2024, at https://ccp.yale.edu/introduction/history-research. DOI: 10079/gb5mkzt
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This page reviews the history of research on Mesopotamian commentaries, from the earliest publications in the late 19th century to the Cuneiform Commentaries Project.1


Early History of Research

The first publications of cuneiform commentaries appeared in the foundational period of Assyriology. As early as 1866, E. Norris provided in 2R, 44 (no. 7) CCP 3.1.u73 and 47CCP 3.1.u72 autographs of two Nineveh commentaries, one astrological, the other commenting on several different texts. However, cuneiform studies were at that time still so much in their infancy that Norris, unaware of what the texts actually represented, characterized them simply as bilingual lists. Progress in the analysis of the genre was slow. But when C. Bezold, between 1889 and 1899, published his catalogue of cuneiform tablets found by the British excavators at Nineveh, he was already able to distinguish in his index a large number of “commentaries” from texts that were merely “explanatory lists” (Bezold, 1889/1899C. Bezold, Catalogue of the Cuneiform Tablets in the Kouyunjik Collection of the British Museum. Vol. I-V. British Museum Press, 1889.: 2098-2100). In an introductory work on Babylonian and Assyrian culture from 1903, BezoldC. Bezold, Ninive und Babylon. Velhagen & Klasing, 1903.
“Besondere Hervorhebung verdienen ... die Kommentare ... Man hat solche Kommentare zu einigen Tafeln einer Serie von Omentexten und zu mehreren Stücken des großen alten astrologischen Werkes ... gefunden. Da von diesen Stücken selbst noch mehrere Fragmente in der Bibliothek [Assurbanipals] erhalten sind, so läßt sich nun Zeile für Zeile des Textes mit dem Kommentar vergleichen und ersehen, mit welchen Schwierigkeiten schon 2600 Jahre vor unserer Zeit die berufsmäßigen Erklärer jener alten astrologischen Sammlungen zu kämpfen hatten. Auch einige religiöse Texte wurden von den Assyrern mit erläuternden Bemerkungen versehen und zwar in der Weise, daß nur gelegentlich ein einzelnes Wort oder ein selteneres Wortzeichen eine Erklärung erhält, ähnlich wie das heute noch in den Bemerkungen zu unseren Schulausgaben der alten Klassiker geschieht” (Bezold, 1903: 136-37).
also provided one of the earliest brief general descriptions of the genre. Another significant step forward was made when L. W. King, in his book on the Babylonian Epic of Creation, presented a full edition of an important text commentary alongside the text to which it referred (King, 1902L. W. King, The Seven Tablets of Creation. Or the Babylonian and Assyrian Legends Concerning the Creation of the World and of Mankind. Luzac, 1902.: 157-75). Additional autograph copies of commentaries, both from Nineveh and from Babylonian cities, were published in subsequent decades by C. Virolleaud (ACh, 1905-1912C. Virolleaud, L'Astrologie Chaldéenne: le livre intitulé "Enuma (Anu) ilu.Bel". Librairie Paul Gauthner, 1910.), T. Meek (1920T. J. Meek, Some Explanatory Lists and Grammatical Texts, Revue d'Assyriologie, vol. 17, pp. 117-206, 1920.), C. J. Gadd (CT 41 = Gadd, 1931C. J. Gadd, Cuneiform Texts from Babylonian Tablets in the British Museum. Part XLI. British Museum Press, 1931.: nos. 25-50), and many others.


Labat’s Commentaires

Gadd’s CT volume inspired what until 2011 remained the only monographic treatment of Mesopotamian text commentaries, R. Labat’s Commentaires assyro-babyloniens sur les presages (Labat, 1933R. Labat, Commentaires assyro-babyloniens sur les présages. Imprimerie-Librairie de l’Université, 1933.), a book that offers editions of altogether twenty-two commentaries as well as an introduction that attempts to define the genre. Labat’s work deserves praise because of its pioneering character and many valuable insights, but its usefulness is limited by the small number of commentaries considered. Moreover, some of the author’s conclusions seem unjustified. When Labat claims, for example, that the commentaries “manifestent très rarement un effort intelligent d’interprétation” (Labat, 1933R. Labat, Commentaires assyro-babyloniens sur les présages. Imprimerie-Librairie de l’Université, 1933.: 22), his judgement may reflect more of the author’s own ability to understand the commentaries than their actual exegetical potential.


The Modern Era

With the exception of J. Krecher’s useful but brief entry on “Kommentare” in RlA 6 (Krecher, 1980/1983J. Krecher, Kommentare, Reallexikon der Assyriologie, vol. 6, pp. 188-191, 1980.
Like Labat, Krecher pays comparatively little attention to the vast body of mukallimtu-commentaries on astrological and extispicy texts.
), there have been no comprehensive treatments of Mesopotamian commentaries since Labat’s book, but several important studies of individual commentaries and commentary groups have appeared. The number of commentaries available in form of autographs or editions has radically increased over the past decades, with the series Spätbabylonische Texte aus Uruk, authored by H. HungerH. Hunger, Spätbabylonische Texte aus Uruk. Teil I. Gebr. Mann Verlag, 1976. and E. von WeiherE. von Weiher, Spätbabylonische Texte aus Uruk. Teil II. Gebr. Mann Verlag, 1983.
E. von Weiher, Spätbabylonische Texte aus Uruk. Teil III. Gebr. Mann Verlag, 1988.
E. von Weiher, Spätbabylonische Texte aus dem Planquadrat U 18. Gebr. Mann Verlag, 1993.
E. von Weiher, Spätbabylonische Texte aus dem Planquadrat U 18. Verlag Philipp von Zabern, 1998.
and a number of publications by U. Koch(-Westenholz) (1999U. Koch-Westenholz, The Astrological Commentary Šumma Sîn ina tāmartīšu Tablet 1, Res Orientales, vol. 12, pp. 149-165, 1999., 2000bU. Koch-Westenholz, Babylonian Liver Omens. The Chapters Manzāzu, Padānu and Pān Tākalti of the Babylonian Extispicy Series mainly from Aššurbanipal's Library. Museum Tusculanum, 2000., 2005U. S. Koch, Secrets of Extispicy. The Chapter Multābiltu of the Babylonian Extispicy Series and Niṣirti bārûti Texts mainly from Aššurbanipal's Library. Ugarit-Verlag, 2005.) providing the bulk of the new materialIn addition, many astrological commentaries have been published in the BPO volumes authored by E. Reiner and D. Pingree:
E. Reiner and Pingree, D. , Babylonian Planetary Omens. Part Two. Enūma Anu Enlil Tablets 50-51. Undena Publications, 1985.
E. Reiner and Pingree, D. , Babylonian Planetary Omens. Part Three. Styx, 1998.
E. Reiner and Pingree, D. , Babylonian Planetary Omens. Part Four. Brill, Styx, 2005.
. Particular attention has been paid to the hermeneutical techniques used in the commentaries (Civil, 1974aM. Civil, Medical Commentaries from Nippur, Journal of Near Eastern Studies, vol. 33, pp. 329-338, 1974., Cavigneaux, 1976A. Cavigneaux, Die sumerisch-akkadischen Zeichenlisten. Überlieferungsprobleme. PhD thesis, 1976.: 151-160, Bottéro, 1977J. Bottéro, Les noms de Marduk, l'écriture et la 'logique' en Mésopotamie Ancienne, in Essays on the Ancient Near East in memory of Jacob Joel Finkelstein, deJ. M. Ellis, Ed. Archon Books, 1977, pp. 5-28., Cavigneaux, 1987A. Cavigneaux, Aux sources du Midrash: L'herméneutique babylonienne, Aula Orientalis, vol. 5, pp. 243-255, 1987., Limet, 1982H. Limet, De la philologie à la mystique en Babylonie, in Studia Paulo Naster oblata II: Orientalia Antiqua, J. Quaergebeur, Ed. Peeters, 1982., George, 1991A. R. George, Babylonian Texts from the folios of Sidney Smith. Part Two: Prognostic and Diagnostic Omens, Tablet I, Revue d'Assyriologie, vol. 85, pp. 137-167, 1991., Hunger, 1995H. Hunger, Ein Kommentar zu Mond-Omina, in Vom Alten Orient zum Alten Testament. Festschrift für Wolfram Freiherrn von Soden zum 85. Geburtstag am 19. Juni 1993, W. Dietrich and Loretz, O. , Eds. Butzon & Kevelaer, 1995, pp. 105-118., Seminara, 2001S. Seminara, La versione accadica del Lugal-e. La tecnica babilonese della traduzione dal sumerico e le sue "regole". Dipartimento di Studi Orientali, 2001.: 546-48), and some authors have compared these techniques to those employed in rabbinical exegesis (Lambert, 1954/1956W. G. Lambert, An Address of Marduk to the Demons, Archiv für Orientforschung, vol. 17, pp. 310-321, 1954.: 311, Cavigneaux, 1987A. Cavigneaux, Aux sources du Midrash: L'herméneutique babylonienne, Aula Orientalis, vol. 5, pp. 243-255, 1987., Lieberman, 1987S. J. Lieberman, A Mesopotamian Background for the So-Called Aggadic 'Measures' of Biblical Hermeneutics?, Hebrew Union College Annual, vol. 58, pp. 157-225, 1987.). Less work has been done to illuminate the socio-cultural context of the commentaries (Meier, 1937/1939bG. Meier, Kommentare aus dem Archiv der Tempelschule in Assur, Archiv für Orientforschung, vol. 12, pp. 237-246, 1937. and 1942G. Meier, Ein Kommentar zu einer Selbstprädikation des Marduk aus Assur, Zeitschrift für Assyriologie, vol. 47, pp. 241-246, 1942., George, 1991A. R. George, Babylonian Texts from the folios of Sidney Smith. Part Two: Prognostic and Diagnostic Omens, Tablet I, Revue d'Assyriologie, vol. 85, pp. 137-167, 1991., Frahm, 2004E. Frahm, Royal Hermeneutics: Observations on the Commentaries from Ashurbanipal's Libraries at Nineveh, Iraq, vol. 66, pp. 45-50, 2004.), but a number of studies of the milieu in which first millennium Babylonian and Assyrian scribes operated have paved the ground to tackle this issue in greater depth (Parpola, 1983bS. Parpola, Letters from Assyrian Scholars to the Kings Esarhaddon and Assurbanipal, Part II: Commentary and Appendices. Butzon & Bercker, 1983., Pongratz-Leisten, 1999B. Pongratz-Leisten, Herrschaftwissen in Mesopotamien. Formen der Kommunikation zwischen Gott und König im 2. und 1. Jahrtausend v. Chr. The Neo-Assyrian Text Corpus Project, 1999., Brown, 2000D. Brown, Mesopotamian Planetary Astronomy-Astrology. Styx, 2000., Frahm, 2002E. Frahm, Zwischen Tradition und Neuerung: Babylonische Priestergelehrte im achämenidenzeitlichen Uruk, in Religion und Religionskontakte im Zeitalter der Achämeniden, R. G. Kratz, Ed. Gütersloher Verlagshaus, 2002, pp. 74-108., Clancier, 2009P. Clancier, Les bibliothèques en Babylonie dans le deuxième moitié du 1er millénaire av. J.-C. Ugarit-Verlag, 2009.). Our understanding of the emergence of canonical texts in Mesopotamia, a phenomenon intimately linked to the birth of the commentary, has also received considerable attention in the past years (Rochberg-Halton, 1984F. Rochberg, Canonicity in Cuneiform Texts, Journal of Cuneiform Studies, vol. 36, pp. 127-144, 1984., Finkel, 1988I. L. Finkel, Adad-apla-iddina, Esagil-kin-apli, and the series SA.GIG, in A scientific humanist: studies in memory of Abraham Sachs, E. Liechty, Ellis, MdeJ. , Gerardi, P. , and Gingerich, O. , Eds. University Museum, 1988, pp. 143-159., Veldhuis 2003N. Veldhuis, Mesopotamian Canons, in Homer, the Bible, and Beyond. Literary and Religious Canons in the Ancient World, M. Finkelberg and Stroumsa, G. G. , Eds. Brill, 2003., Heeßel, 2010aN. P. Heeßel, Neues von Esagil-kīn-apli. Die ältere Version der physiognomischen Omenserie alamdimmû, in Assur-Forschungen. Arbeiten aus der Forschungsstelle »Edition literarischer Keilschrifttexte aus Assur« der Heidelberger Akademie der Wissenschaften, S. M. Maul and Heeßel, N. P. , Eds. Harrassowitz, 2010, pp. 139-187.).

Because no synthesis of the information gathered in these studies is available at present, recent works that analyze the history and typology of the commentary from a multi-disciplinary perspective have paid little attention to commentaries from Babylonia and Assyria. Assmann & Gladigow, 1995J. Assmann and Gladigow, B. , Text und Kommentar. Fink, 1995., the broadest and intellectually most stimulating recent treatment of the commentary tradition, with discussions of exegetical texts from Egypt, the classical world, Jewish, Christian, and Islamic tradition, India, China, and the West, ignores them altogether. Most, 1999G. W. Most, Commentaries - Kommentare. 1999. includes an important article on cuneiform “etymography” by MaulS. M. Maul, Das Wort im Worte, Orthographie und Etymologie als hermeneutische Verfahren babylonischer Gelehrter, in Commentaries/Kommentare, G. W. Most, Ed. Göttingen: , 1999, pp. 1-18., but it, too, fails to discuss the cuneiform commentaries.


Frahm’s Origins and the Cuneiform Commentaries Project

It took several more years, however, before the first comprehensive study of the corpus appeared. In 2011, Eckart Frahm, the Principal Investigator of the Cuneiform Commentaries Project, published his monograph Babylonian and Assyrian Text Commentaries: Origins of Interpretation, in the series Guides to the Mesopotamian Textual Record (Münster). The book, based on several years of research, provides a complete catalog of nearly 900 cuneiform commentaries scattered among museums and private collections around the world, discusses the scribes who copied and collected them, and analyzes the principal hermeneutical techniques, their self-designations, and their intertextual references.

Frahm’s study did not aim to publish large numbers of commentaries. In fact, it presents only two commentaries, one from Assyria (Frahm, 2011E. Frahm, Babylonian and Assyrian Text Commentaries. Origins of Interpretation. Ugarit-Verlag, 2011.: 384-396) and one from Babylonia (Frahm, 2011E. Frahm, Babylonian and Assyrian Text Commentaries. Origins of Interpretation. Ugarit-Verlag, 2011.: 396-404), in complete, annotated editions. But with its comprehensive catalog, the book provided a starting point for the more ambitious goal of editing all the commentaries in full, including those that have never been properly studied before.2 Important studies on Mesopotamian commentaries have appeared after the publication of this monograph, especially Gabbay, 2012U. Gabbay, Akkadian Commentaries from Ancient Mesopotamia and Their Relation to Early Hebrew Exegesis, Dead Sea Discoveries, vol. 19, pp. 267-312, 2012. and Gabbay, 2014U. Gabbay, Actual Sense and Scriptural Intention: Literal Meaning and Its Terminology in Akkadian and Hebrew Commentaries, in Encounters by the Rivers of Babylon: Scholarly Conversations between Jews, Iranians, and Babylonians, U. Gabbay and Secunda, S. , Eds. Mohr Siebeck, 2014, pp. 335-370..


The main goal of the Cuneiform Commentaries Project is to provide full editions of all known text commentaries from ancient Mesopotamia. As outlined in the section About the Project, the project started in Fall 2013. Eckart Frahm, Principal Investigator, and Enrique Jiménez, Postdoctoral Associate, have created an electronic database of all known commentaries and built a searchable website that makes the database available to a global audience. In cooperation with the Open Richly Annotated Cuneiform Corpus (Oracc), Frahm and Jiménez have also created online editions of several dozen commentary tablets and fragments. The available editions (50 as of January 2015) are accessible in the section Catalog of Commentaries. Editions of all remaining texts will be prepared and made available on the project’s website during the next few years.