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Institute for the Study of the Ancient World



Seth L. Sanders

Visiting Research Scholar 2010-2011

Seth Sanders is a Semitic philologist interested in the mutually creative relationships between ancient West Semitic genres and cultures: how forms like "history" or "hymn" helped bring things like "Israel" or "mysticism" into being (and vice-versa). Trained at Harvard College,Hebrew University, and Johns Hopkins University in Hebrew, Aramaic, Ugaritic, Babylonian, etc., he uses linguistic anthropology to read ancient texts as tools that were actually used in creating persons and polities. His first book, The Invention of Hebrew, a finalist for the Jewish National Book Award, investigates one aspect of the Bible's enduring power by looking at its roots as the first vernacular literature, intended to address an audience in its own language. His ISAW project, Rituals of Revelation: Heavenly Journeys and the Ancient Near Eastern Elements of Early Jewish Mysticism, asks why many of the most mysterious and compelling elements of early mysticism are found in Mesopotamian and early Jewish texts but not in the Hebrew Bible. How do we explain these new myths and rituals? It builds on recent advances in understanding the connections between early Jewish and Mesopotamian intellectual culture via Aramaic, as exemplified by the astronomy and apocalypses of Enoch. To understand how these changes became possible we need to examine not just borrowing but how people experienced ancient myths religiously. How did the belief arise that this cosmic knowledge could be embodied by worshippers? It is equally concerned with historical causation: why do these traditions only emerge in Judaism during the Hellenistic period? The answers may have interesting consequences for the history of mysticism and Western eschatology more broadly.