Between Belief and Science: The Contribution of Writing and Law to Ancient Religious Thought


This workshop will investigate how the organizational aspects of writing, reading signs, divination, and law intersect to arrive at a new approach to ancient Near Eastern religions. Most modern scholarship has defined a culture’s religion through the lens of ritual and the cult of the gods. Rather than stressing action in the communication with the divine world, the exegetical side of communication will be emphasized, investigating how cognitive capacities for object recognition, categorization and conceptualization, along with the relationship between the creating and reading of cuneiform signs and the creating and reading of symbols in nature, shaped how ancient religious experts recorded and interpreted the divine world. As the word kittu is used for both justice and the regularity of the course of the stars, the role of law in defining social organization and hierarchies will also be examined, in particular the role of the king as a divinely appointed ruler in charge of securing cosmic order through civil order. Such a complex notion of order calls for a reevaluation of the ancient notion of nature and redefinition of the hitherto simplistic approach to the ‘deification’ of the forces of nature.

Jean-Jacques Glassner (Paris, CNRS)
Beate Pongratz-Leisten (organizer, ISAW)
Francesca Rochberg (Berkeley and ISAW Senior Fellow)
Gonzalo Rubio (Pennsylvania State University & ISAW Senior Fellow)
Rita Watson (ISAW Research Associate and Hebrew University of Jersusalem (Emeritus)
Norman Yoffee (ISAW Senior Fellow)

Seating is limited, please email to register.

Beate Pongratz-Leisten, Introduction - The Constitutive Role of Writing in Social Practice and Epistemology

10:30 Gonzalo Rubio, Ancient Diacritics: Towards a Mesopotamian Epistemology of Cuneiform Writing

11:30 Coffee Break

11:45 Norman Yoffee, Cuneiform Law: Traditions and Counter-Traditions

12:45 Lunch Break

14:00 Jean-Jacques Glassner, The Invention of Writing, Old Babylonian Schools and the Semiology of the Diviners

15:00 Coffee Break

15:15 Francesca Rochberg, Where Were the Laws of Nature Before There Was Nature?

16:15 Rita Watson, Writing and Reasoning: Cognitive Perspectives on a Mesopotamian Text

17:15 Final Discussion

To RSVP, please email