From Hebrew Bible Studies to the Studies of the Ancient Near East

Approaches Towards a History of Religion of Mesopotamia

Beate Pongratz-Leisten


Like literature, religion is a topic about which most people believe to speak informed and competently, because we all have been exposed to it in one way or another. In fact, things are not that simple, if we think of religion encompassing more than just faith and include aspects of divinity, institutions, community, practice, and theology. This talk will trace Assyriological approaches to ancient religions in Mesopotamia and address the question of intellectual and religious history by tackling it through the lens of our own scholarly history since the decipherment of the cuneiform script in the second half of the 19th century. For the most part, in Assyriology, there are no real schools of approaches towards the history of religion, as one could define them, for instance, for topics such as sedentarization and urbanism, law, or economics. Rather, we can observe moments, when individual scholars touching upon topics of ancient Near Eastern religion would also engage with an interdisciplinary discourse occurring outside Assyriology in the fields of history of religion, anthropology, literary theory, intertextuality and narratology as well as art history and visual theory. It is some of these intellectual turning points, which this talks addresses including the Bible-Bable controversy; the Astral-Mythological School; the attempt of Assyriology to break away from Hebrew Bible studies and establish itself as a field in its own right; it will discuss A. Leo Oppenheim’s famous essay “Why a Religion of Mesopotamia Should Not Be Written” and its detrimental effect on an entire generation of scholars and trace some important steps in approaching questions of monotheism and polytheism; the concept of divinity, anthropomorphism and the divine body, divine kingship, and, finally, aspects of communication and interaction with divinity.

Beate Pongratz-Leisten is Professor of Ancient Near Eastern Studies. After having been trained as an interpreter in French and Spanish at the universities of Mainz and Paris, she embarked on a second career and studied Assyriology and Ancient Near Eastern Archaeology, Egyptology, and Religious Studies at the University of Tübingen and Harvard. She received her PhD from the University of Tübingen with a dissertation on the New Year festival and its programmatic and theological realization in Assyria and Babylonia (Die kulttopographische und ideologische Programmatik der aktīu-Prozession in Babylonien und Assyrien im I. Jahrtausend v. Chr.,1994) taking an approach that combined the fields of ancient Near Eastern philology, archaeology, and Religious Studies, an approach that was unusual at the time. With her second dissertation (habilitation), her approach shifted towards the Assyrian court and its interaction with the ancient scholars advising the king in his decision-making by means of divination and astrology (Herrschaftswissen in Mesopotamien: Formen der Kommunikation zwischen Gott und König im 2. und 1. Jahrtausend v. Chr., 1999). Her interest in the cultural and religious life in ancient Mesopotamia and the formation of polytheistic and monotheistic religions brought her into intense discussion with Hebrew Bible studies, culminating in a conference at Princeton in 2007 (Reconsidering the Concept of Revolutionary Monotheism, 2011). Investigating the conceptualization of divinity made her venture into Cognitive Sciences (The Materiality of Divine Agency, co-edited with Karen Sonik, 2015). Her interdisciplinary approach also shaped her recent book on Assyrian Religion and Ideology, 2015, in which she abandoned the traditional image of Assyria as merely borrowing from Babylonian culture and, in addition to its interaction with Babylonia, revealed its intercultural connectivity with the Hurrians and Syro-Anatolian horizons. Currently, she is working on an anthology of Akkadian Rituals and a book project on The Art Object at the Interface of the Media.

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