Debunking Ancient Jewish Science

By Geller, M. J. | The Journal of the American Oriental Society, April-June 2017 | Go to article overview

Debunking Ancient Jewish Science


Geller, M. J., The Journal of the American Oriental Society


A recently published collection of articles focuses upon a relatively small group of texts dealing mainly with astronomical calculations and omens as well as physiognomic omens, attempting to use these as a basis for reconstructing ancient Jewish science in the Persian and Hellenistic periods. The present review raises questions regarding the aims and methods employed, offering an alternative suggestion for the transfer of technical knowledge from Babylonia to ancient Palestine.

The themes of ancient science (in the broader sense of "Wissenschaften") should not be seen simply as precursors to modern physics, astronomy, chemistry, medicine, etc., since ancient scholars had few instruments or technological aids, beyond their powers of observation, memory, calculating, and reasoning. In fact, it would be more accurate to refer to ancient disciplines (see Lloyd 2009) with flexible parameters, to cover areas of knowledge acquisition characterized by the collecting and evaluating of large amounts of seemingly unconnected data in order to establish a more orderly view of the human environment, and to offer rational explanations for events within that environment. Mathematics is arguably the most crucial of any technical discipline, since the ability to formulate abstract mathematical problems and paradigms (rather than simply perform arithmetical calculations) was a prerequisite to the development of "exact sciences" (using Otto Neugebauer's terminology). This seems obvious, but abstract and paradigmatic models were also the basis for another technical discipline--grammar--which appears to have developed concurrently with mathematics.

The early second millennium B.C.E. in Babylonia witnessed the emergence of impressively high-level mathematical thinking, including number theory based on a complex sexagesimal system, which existed side-by-side with a decimal system, and a complete thesaurus of mathematical terminology (see Friberg 2007: 1-11). At roughly the same time, scribal schools were producing analytic grammatical tables of Sumerian-Akkadian verbal forms; mathematical and grammatical texts generated abstract and theoretical examples of geometry or morphology which were both descriptive and prescriptive, and these appeared more than a millennium before Pythagoras and Panini. Although production of new discoveries in both mathematics and grammar later appears to have stagnated, the invention of the zodiac in the fifth century B.C.E. stimulated new models required for highly sophisticated mathematical astronomy, while new theories of grammatical analysis also emerged from the same scribal milieu (see Black 1991).

But other disciplines also developed within Mesopotamian scribal culture, such as lexicography, divination, medicine, magic, alchemy, and astrology, and debates have centered around whether these can be considered as "sciences" or not. The logic of such texts is often loosely associative, usually described as reflecting the fallacy of post hoc ergo propter hoc, or false causality. Nevertheless, these disciplines all had similar goals, to observe phenomena (or "signs") to be able to note diagnostic patterns and predict future events. Many but not all of these disciplines were recorded in the form of lists, with additional explanatory information or commentaries being provided orally in the curriculum and hence largely lost to modern scholarship. Nevertheless, lengthy compositions were composed and later copied, studied, canonized, and commented upon with complex hermeneutics, which rival other systems of episteme. Moreover, there was an increasing tendency in late periods for such knowledge to become secular rather than religious, since advances in astronomy determined that the celestial universe rotated in a clockwork-like fashion under fixed laws which could be explained without having to posit divine intervention. Alternatively, one could argue that new discoveries even compelled deities to behave according to mathematical rules. …

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