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Literary and Discursive Framing of Medical Knowledge in Antiquity

09.08.2017 - 11.08.2017

Panels of the project A03 "Transfer of Medical Episteme in the ‘Encyclopaedic’ Compilations of Late Antiquity" and program unit “Medicine in Bible and Talmud” (EABS) convened by Markham J. Geller and Lennart Lehmhaus at the EABS / SBL International Meeting Berlin, August 7-11, 2017

For the Berlin Meeting of the EABS and SBL in 2017, the research unit organized by Markham J. Geller and Lennart Lehmhaus (Project A03, CRC/SFB 980 “Episteme in Motion”) welcomed presentations that asked how medical (and other related) knowledge is presented, or rather, represented in particular texts and contexts. Papers addressed the question about shape and design of such knowledge discourses. Some contributions even asked further: who constructed this discourse and for whom? Which implicit or explicit authorial strategies and intentions can we discern? Can one understand the adoption or appropriation of certain textual strategies and compositional techniques as a vital venue for knowledge transfer, rather than the actual content of the passage?

This approach chosen by the sessions’ participants paid attention to the embeddedness of medicine in Talmudic literature, different other Jewish and further ancient traditions (from ancient Mesopotamia, Persia, early Christian Greek contexts, or Syriac traditions in the early Muslim period). Thus, the presentations and discussions allowed for valuable insights how medical information and other types of knowledge were integrated into different, overlapping discourses and specific contexts. Especially, the interplay between medical, religious, political, ethical and ritual discourse seems to be of crucial importance for a broader understanding of ancient knowledge cultures. Papers showed interest in a comparative approach and applied various theories and methods ranging from textual criticism and redaction history, to literary or discursive studies of ancient scientific texts that paid also attention to their socio-cultural framing.


Session 9-36: Healing and Illness between the Second Temple Period and Talmudic Traditions.

Wednesday, August 09, 2017, 11:00 AM to 12:45 PM

Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin, Universitätsgebäude am Hegelplatz; Dorotheenstraße 24, Seminarraum 1.503

Markham Geller, Freie Universität Berlin, Presiding
Lindsey A. Askin, University of Cambridge, The hand that feeds you: Reassessing Second Temple attitudes to medicine through Ben Sira and the cost of ingredients (25 min)

Discussion (10 min)

Alexander Dubrau, University of Tübingen, The Hidden Medical Knowledge of Biblical Rites: Medical and Healing Aspects of the Sota- (Numeri 5) and the Red Heifer-Rite (Numeri 19) According to Talmudic Traditions (25 min)

Discussion (10 min)

Heidi Marx-Wolf, University of Manitoba, Respondent (30 min)


Session 9-87: Preuss Revisited: New Studies into Talmudic Medical Knowledge from Berlin.

Wednesday, August 09, 2017, 4:00 PM to 5:30 PM

Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin, Universitätsgebäude am Hegelplatz; Dorotheenstraße 24, Seminarraum 1.204

Markham Geller, Freie Universität Berlin, A Catalogue of Disease in the Babylonian Talmud (30 min)

Tanja Hidde, Freie Universität Berlin, "If an elephant swallowed a basket and passed it out": A Rabbinic Concept of Digestion? (30 min)

Lennart Lehmhaus, Freie Universität Berlin, External Wisdom (Hokhma Hitzonit) Internalised: Encyclopaedic Features and Medical Knowledge in Talmudic Texts (30 min)


10-6 Joint Session with Early Christianity (EABS): Magico-Medical Approaches to Healing in Ancient Cultures and Religions.

Thursday, August 10, 2017, 9:00 AM to 12:15 PM

Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin, Universitätsgebäude am Hegelplatz; Dorotheenstraße 24, Seminarraum 1.506

Lennart Lehmhaus, Freie Universität Berlin, Presiding

Loubna Ayeb, Université Lyon, Aspects of mesopotamian therapeutics : magical poetry and speech acts (30 min)

Discussion (10 min)

Mara Rescio, Italian Centre for Advanced Studies on Religions, Making the Deaf Hear and the Mute Speak: Mark 7:31-37 in the Light of Documentary Papyri and Semi-Literary Texts (30 min)

Discussion (10 min)

Break (30 min)

Miruna Belea, University of Manchester, Medicine from the Bible, beyond the Talmud: the Case of Sefer Shimmush Torah (SST) (30 min)

Discussion (10 min)


10-41 Joint Session with Early Christianity (EABS): The Transfer of Medical Knowledge in Its Material and Religious Contexts.

Thursday, August 10, 2017, 2:00 PM to 5:15 PM

Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin, Universitätsgebäude am Hegelplatz; Dorotheenstraße 24, Seminarraum 1.506

Outi Lehtipuu, University of Helsinki, Presiding

Susan Holman, Harvard University, Doctors in the Choir: Theological Medicine in the Ancient Church Precinct (30 min)

Discussion (10 min)

Emunah Levy, Bar-Ilan University, The reception of Asaf's Book of Medicines: the story told by the manuscript witnesses (30 min)

Discussion (10 min)

Break (30 min)

Annette Weissenrieder, Graduate Theological Union, Disease and Healing in a Changing World: ‘Medical’ Vocabulary and the ‘Female Patient’ in the Vetus Latina Mark and Luke (30 min)

Discussion (10 min)

Jimmy Daccache, Yale University, Observations on 6th and 9th centuries translation techniques through Sergius’ and Hunayn’s works (30 min)

Discussion (10 min)


Session 11-11: Framing Knowledge – Literary Representations of Medical Discourses.

Friday, August 11, 2017, 9:00 AM to 10:45 AM

Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin, Hauptgebäude; Unter den Linden 6, Beratungsraum 3119

Lennart Lehmhaus, Freie Universität Berlin, Presiding

Ida Fröhlich, Pázmány Péter Katolikus Egyetem, Science in Genesis Apocryphon of Qumran (25 min)

Discussion (10 min)

Monika Amsler, Universität Zürich, Proofstories and What They Actually Prove (25 min)

Discussion (10 min)

Shulamit Shinnar, Columbia University in the City of New York, Fearing the Unseen Snake: Models of Illness in Rabbinic Literature (25 min)

Discussion (10 min)


Lindsey A. Askin (University of Cambridge): "The hand that feeds you: Reassessing Second Temple attitudes to medicine through Ben Sira and the cost of ingredients"

Early Jewish attitudes towards physicians and medicine are usually understood to be largely negative, with few exceptions. This paper argues that we must reassess Second Temple Jewish medical knowledge and attitudes towards medicine in two ways. First, this study offers a new interpretation of Ben Sira's physician poem (Sir 38) as advice towards the ungrateful and impious ill-person who does not acknowledge the Divine origins of healing, not towards a reader who is mistrustful of medicine. Ben Sira suggests that physicians and their patients must be pious, and follows similar attitudes in the Hebrew Bible (Hezekiah, Asa). Secondly, this paper considers the varied economic and domestic uses of Judean ‘medical’ products such as perfume, luxury uses, and cultic worship as evidence of positive societal knowledge of and dependence upon medicine in Second Temple Judea. The high economic costs of these Judean medical exports must play a significant role in shaping our understanding of early Jewish medical knowledge and attitudes towards physicians and medicine. Particular examples of Judean plants examined throughout this paper will be balsam, bitumen, and the soap-plant atriplex halimus, all grown or harvested from the Jordan Valley and Dead Sea basin from at least the late Hasmonean period.


Alexander Dubrau (University of Tübingen): "The Hidden Medical Knowledge of Biblical Rites: Medical and Healing Aspects of the Sota- (Numeri 5) and the Red Heifer-Rite (Numeri 19) According to Talmudic Traditions"

This paper highlights the medical and healing aspects of two outstanding rites described in the Hebrew Bible in Numbers 5 and 19 as they have been interpreted in Talmudic literature. Numbers 5 describes a rite, which aims to prove whether or not a woman who is under suspicion of adultery has indeed committed it. Numbers 19 outlines the preparation of the red heifer's ashes for the purification rite of those who became impure through contact with a dead body. In contrast to their literal interpretation as a divinely ordained ritual procedure in the Hebrew Bible, some Talmudic sources associate these rites with healing knowledge and medical science that also involve the practice of magic and sorcery. This paper emphasizes the medical and healing knowledge that underlie the practice of both rites as transmitted and controversially discussed by the Rabbis in the Talmudic sources and in rabbinic commentaries of Late Antiquity and the Middle Ages. In order to examine this apparent dichotomy, I shall examine relevant rabbinic texts in reference to the purpose of these medical and healing procedures. The discussion of these texts includes questions of sacred fictional or factual practices (Sitz im Leben), the exegetical and hermeneutical rabbinic discourse on framing this knowledge, as well as the interrelation of magical and medical skills. In conclusion, I will explore the process in which rabbinic medical knowledge on healing skills and folk medicine derive from the legal ritual traditions in the Bible. Thus, using these two biblical rites as examples, the paper demonstrates the relevance of medical science and healing knowledge within rabbinic ritual Halakhah, its framing, development, and trajectories within rabbinic sources.


Markham Geller (Freie Universität berlin, SFB 980): "A Catalogue of Disease in the Babylonian Talmud"

This paper will present a catalogue of diseases affecting parts of the body listed from head to foot, with associated prescriptions, in the form of a medical handbook preserved in the Babylonian Talmud (Gittin 68-70), in connection with a long-known Mandaic incantation published by Lady Drower in 1946, A Phylactery for Rue (Orientalia 15), later discussed by C. Müller-Kessler (Fs. Ranger, 1999). The Mandaic text preserves a similar list of ailments in more-or-less the same sequence as the Gittin passage, with both the Gittin and Mandaic texts containing Akkadian loanwords, which provide clues to the origins of these texts.


Tanja Hidde (Freie Universität Berlin): "'If an elephant swallowed a basket and passed it out': A Rabbinic Concept of Digestion?"

Greek medicine, like Galen, describes the process of digestion (pepsis) according to humoral theory as a kind of transformation of the quality of the food one consumes into the quality of the receiving organ. A similar idea is expressed in rabbinic literature, however in a ritual context: the quality of the unclean (tame) swallowed object is transformed into the quality of the clean (tahor) receiving organ. What is the status of a basket swallowed by an elephant, if the animal excretes it intact? This process of swallowing and excreting an object is called the process of ?ikul. Does the usage of ?ikul in the Bavli show that the rabbis had a concept of the gastrointestinal passage?


Lennart Lehmhaus (Freie Universität Berlin, SFB 980): "External Wisdom (Hokhma Hitzonit) Internalised: Encyclopaedic Features and Medical Knowledge in Talmudic Texts"

Talmudic traditions, deeply interwoven with its religious and legal content, also transfer and convey technical, scientific and social knowledge through complex hermeneutical, rhetorical and cognitive techniques. Thus, the Talmudic corpus, containing Jewish lore and law for almost all aspects or realms of daily life, lends itself to be studied with respect to its encyclopaedic dimensions. Focusing on some dense clusters about medicine and healing, the paper will explore the character of Talmudic texts as handbooks, compendia or encyclopedia. Furthermore, I will ask how the rabbinic strategies of appropriation facilitated the transfer of late antique (medical) knowledge of the body into authoritative, or even holy, traditions.


Loubna Ayeb (Université Lyon): "Aspects of Mesopotamian Therapeutics: Magical Poetry and Speech Acts"

Mesopotamian therapeutic incantations have been reduced for a long time to their sole ‘magical’ nature. Yet, if we consider the historical and social context in which they took place, we can see that they were part of a larger field of knowledge. The ašipus (or exorcists) who wrote those texts were highly trained scholars, and they produced a lore that went beyond the mere frame of technical application. They were learned practitioners with a savoir-faire that lay at the border between literature and science. Studies have already showed that, as early as the 3rd millennium BC, therapeutic incantations were very sophisticated literary compositions. Adopting an approach derived from pragmatic linguistic studies as well as works on Sumerian poetry, I will try to show how these incantations were also devised to answer an immediate need, namely that of healing a patient. This study will focus on 3rd millennium texts, dating from the early dynastic period to the Ur III period. It will consider not only the message conveyed by the incantation, through literary means like metaphors, comparisons, etc., but also the sound of the incantation itself, its rhythm, the way it would have been pronounced. In this way, I will try to demonstrate how the reading of these texts could have affected a patient on a psychosomatic level.


Mara Rescio (Italian Centre for Advanced Studies on Religions): "Making the Deaf Hear and the Mute Speak: Mark 7:31-37 in the Light of Documentary Papyri and Semi-Literary Texts"

The aim of this paper is to move a first step towards a systematic reading of the synoptic ‘miracle stories’ in the light of documentary papyri, along the lines of the ‘Papyrologische Kommentare zum Neuen Testament – Papyrological Commentaries on the New Testament’ (PKNT) international series published by Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht (Göttingen, 2003–). The analysis will focus on a healing story transmitted by Mark, concerning the case of a deaf-mute cured by Jesus during his trip across the Decapolis region (Mk 7:31-37). The story, which also presents strong parallels with that of the blind man in Bethsaida (Mk 8:22-26), is particularly interesting because of the detailed description of the healing method used by Jesus, who is portrayed as (a) touching the organs affected (ears and tongue), (b) spitting, (c) looking up to the heaven and (d) sighing. One aspect of the inquiry, therefore, will consist of isolating the semantic area relating to deafness and speech impairment in documentary papyri as well as semi-literary texts (such as medical treatises, prescriptions, amulets, and magical papyri): What do these sources tell us about speech and hearing disabilities, and how can they help us to interpret the gospel account? Was the author of Mark’s Gospel influenced by or aware of the Greco-Roman medical terminology? Or, rather, do the actions of Jesus described by the text imply ‘magical’ manipulation? And then, what kind of relationship did Mark intend to suggest between Jesus and the healing practitioners of the time? As we know, the account of the deaf-mute is one of the very few episodes of Mark that do not (re)appear in either Matthew or Luke. Can this be seen as a sign of the other two Synoptics’ discomfort with the Markan portrait of Jesus?


Miruna Belea (University of Manchester): "Medicine from the Bible, beyond the Talmud: the Case of Sefer Shimmush Torah (SST)"

This paper deals with the socio-religious approach to supernatural healing in SST from the standpoint of biblical reception history. The work, whose subheading endorses it as ‘seemingly edited during the period of the Geonim’, presents a series of permutations and reinterpretations based on Torah verses that will become well known in later Jewish magical literature for their healing properties. Starting with a prologue about Moses’ ascension into heaven to receive the Torah and together with it, the secret knowledge about its magico-medical use, SST indirectly presents the common source of both religious and medical practices as rooted in the covenant between God and the people of Israel. The first part of the paper addresses Jewish magico-medical manuscripts as a genre and the interplay between biblical concepts and concise scientific language. The discussion is narrowed down to SST’s transmission history and its edited form in manuscripts around the world. Several examples illustrate the medical validity of the Bible in different contexts, from 13th century Italy to 17th century Poland. The second part focuses on the content itself, describing how the Bible was recontextualised in SST and how medical knowledge was represented practically in associations between biblical verses, names of God and magico-medical amulets. Using discourse analysis and new insights into reception theory (largely based on Brennan Breed’s work), the final aim is to illustrate how SST conceptualises cure and divine intervention as connected. Through the secret knowledge given in SST, ethnic continuity is ensured in a most practical way that translates religion into science.


Susan Holman (Harvard University): "Doctors in the Choir: Theological Medicine in the Ancient Church Precinct"

Spaces associated with healing in Christian church and monastic constructions in late antiquity typically frame their medical messaging through fluidities of religious imagery rooted in constructed power dynamics. They do this through both textual accounts of social dynamics and through material culture in architecture and archaeological remains. Such healing texts, both figural and written, narrate medical treatment by connecting therapeutic dynamics of social economics (e.g., the impoverishment of illness; sanctuary funding; rich vs. poor; refugee relief) with theology (from “heresy” to the “medicine of immortality”) and physical substances (food, water, art). Healing implies a kinetics of change, and the location of such healing nurture in a church site typically strengthens clerical claims to discursive power. This paper will consider these fluid dynamics by considering the visual presence of healers in sacred space accessible to the laity, and the related extension of sanctuary spatiality to therapeutic public works beyond the church or monastery walls. The paper will focus on a group of seventh-century paintings of medical healers uncovered in the khurus (choir) of the Church of the Holy Virgin at the monastery now known as Dayr al-Suryan, and published in detail by Karel C. Innémee. These heavily restored images evoke the material substances of Christian healing in a context known for its theological emphasis on incarnation. The paper will include comparisons from other Christian healing sites between the fourth and seventh centuries, and will invite further discussion about the materiality of theological cure.


Annette Weissenrieder (Graduate Theological Union, Berkeley): "Disease and Healing in a Changing World: ‘Medical’ Vocabulary and the ‘Female Patient’ in the Vetus Latina Mark and Luke"

The Vetus Latina, or “Old Latin Bible,” comprises a diverse collection of Latin biblical texts used by Christian churches probably from the second century on. The Old Latin Bible encompasses all unauthorized versions of the Bible translated into Latin. These Old Latin manuscripts reflect the early struggle for a ‘proper’ understanding of biblical texts, which is interesting for the healing stories of ‘female patients’ like Peter’s mother in law who suffers from high fever, the woman with the issue of blood, or the bent woman. I am going to show that in parallel with the spread of medical knowledge beyond medical circles, there arise medical designations which are similar or strikingly different from those current in the medical discourse and are taken up in the manuscripts found and related to the so-called “African” text that is close to Cyprian differently than in the so-called European text tradition. While the European text uses unusual Latin words that might be regarded as vulgarisms and are similar to other non-medical authors like Plautus or Sallust, the African text uses instead medical expressions which are similar to those in the discourses of medical authors.


Jimmy Daccache (Yale University): "Observations on 6th and 9th centuries translation techniques through Sergius’ and Hunayn’s works"

In his auto-bibliographical “Risala”, written in 9th century Baghdad, Hunayn ibn Ishaq criticized the technique and quality of the Greek-to-Syriac medical translations of Galen’s works made by Sergius of Raš ‘Ayna in the 6th century. This paper outlines their translation techniques, by taking into account the historical and cultural context of both authors. Sergius’ and Hunayn’s translation methods will be illustrated by a selection of parallel passages translated from Books VI-VIII of Galen’s treatise On Simple Drugs.


Monika Amsler (Universität Zürich): "Proofstories and What They Actually Prove"

Several medical recipes in the Babylonian Talmud are enhanced with a story about a successful application of the particular recipe. Interestingly the recipes under question are often changed or, rather, adapted in the stories. This paper will therefore address the question of the authority of these recipes as well as their connection to the respective indications while widening the focus unto other Late Antique medical compilations. Furthermore, the style of the stories, the protagonists as well as the literary co-texts will be analysed in order to disclose patterns and/or originality.


Shulamit Shinnar (Columbia University in the City of New York): "Fearing the Unseen Snake: Models of Illness in Rabbinic Literature"

In recent years, historians of medicine, drawing on medical anthropology, have argued that an individual’s experience of illness is not solely shaped by the biological and physiological realities underlying their condition. Rather, the experience is mediated by models of illness: the patterns of belief, symbolic systems, and medical knowledge that are constructed within particular communities and historical contexts. By studying local medical discourses, historians may access how individuals in a particular period experienced illnesses. Thus, this paper explores Jewish models of illness and the etiology of disease in late antiquity as represented in rabbinic literature. Focusing on a series of texts from the Palestinian Talmud mesechet Terumah and mesechet Yoma, it examines the rabbinic discussion of snakes, snake bites, and snake poison. These texts include stories of people being bitten by snakes, and previous scholarship has assumed that these texts merely attest to a proliferation of poisonous snakes in the region. However, these texts also describe people becoming suddenly ill and their condition is then attributed to an unseen snake poisoning food or water. Furthermore, the language used to describe these unseen snakes draws both on Biblical literature and Greco-Roman healing traditions that see the snake as a divine agent. This paper argues that in rabbinic literature, snakes were understood as the agents of sudden and severe illnesses. Understanding this fear of unseen snakes along with the symbolic import of the snake as a divine agent, sheds light on rabbinic illness models and thus how some individuals experienced and understood illness in late antiquity.

This research unit and its panels at the EABS/SBL meeting are generously funded by the Collaborative Research Center – SFB 980 Episteme in Motion of Freie Universität Berlin and the German Research Foundation/Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft (DFG).