BOOK REVIEW  Published in Volume 68, 2020

MIKE AHUVIA and ALEXANDER KOCAR (eds.), Placing Ancient Texts: The Ritual and Rhetorical Use of Space (Texts and Studies in Ancient Judaism 174; Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2018). Pp. x + 263. Cloth. €119.00.

This volume explores the use of both “place” and “space” in ancient Jewish and Christian texts. The volume’s approach is an intriguing one: there is no set methodology provided, but each chapter provides its own take on the text being explored. This aligns with the volume’s implied understanding that all texts must be interpreted primarily within their context. This is further demonstrated through the wide variety of chapters from different disciplines—including literary studies, historical studies, liturgical studies, and ritual studies.

Perhaps most important of this volume’s contributions is the recognition of the contextual interplay between texts and space; a driving question that ties the volume together is: how is the understanding or performance of texts affected by space and place, and vice versa? In exploring the answer to this question through a variety of different texts, each chapter provides fresh insights as well as implications for each text or material. Nine chapters are included, grouped into three sections: the first section dealing with the construction of space and place, the second exploring the location of people within space, and finally the third with the use of texts within particular spaces.

Eshbal Ratzon, “Placing Eden in Second Temple Judaism,” explores the gradual change in understanding of the “Garden of Eden,” tracing its evolution from the Hebrew Bible through to Second Temple literature. Though the Garden is initially envisioned and understood as a physical space located on Earth, its location eventually alters to become an eschatological “heavenly” space. Ratzon also points out the shift in function of the Garden from a historic geographic location to a place of rest and reward, noting especially the importance of 1 Enoch in documenting these shifts.

Gil P. Klein, “Sabbath as City: Rabbinic Urbanism and Imperial Territoriality in Roman Palestine,” draws together the competing strands of Roman cultural imposition with Jewish rabbinic thought through his exploration of how rabbis of the first century C.E. negotiated uniquely Jewish spaces within Roman-occupied areas. He argues that rabbis subversively challenged and reappropriated Roman domination through their co-opting of Roman spatial boundaries in creating Sabbath boundaries, effectively claiming the space for their own whilst staying within Roman systems. This imitation (mimesis) allowed Jews to clearly establish their own sacred cultural space by reinscribing it across Roman boundaries.

Ophir Münz-Manor, “In situ: Liturgical Poetry and Sacred Space in Late Antiquity,” writes about the performance of ancient liturgical poetry, focusing specifically on the use of ekphrasis in various poems and the correspondence with the space in which these poems would have been performed. In using ekphrastic language, the poets create a deep connection with the architecture of the buildings which they described, and in which they were performed, thus allowing audiences to be connected to “sacred time” as part of the liturgical ritual.

Alexander Kocar, “A Hierarchy of Salvation in the Book of Revelation: Different Peoples, Dwellings, and Tasks in the End Times,” explores John of Patmos’ ordering of different groups using space and time. He argues that Revelation presents a multi-tiered, hierarchical model of salvation based on group membership that more accurately reflects John’s identity as a “Jewish follower of Jesus” rather than a “Christian.” Drawing on the “new earth” and the “new Jerusalem” in Revelation, Kocar postulates that salvation within the holy city is reserved for Jews, whilst Gentiles are largely excluded from it. This, he argues, helps by clarifying certain expectations for his Jewish audience, and reflects the common Jewish eschatological understandings of the time.

Rachel R. Neis, “Directing the Heart: Corporeal Language and the Anatomy of Ritual Space,” examines ritual language that invokes the body and its constituent parts in order to more accurately discern the meanings and directions of phrases which instruct certain postures. In particular, Neis is interested in a “bodily-oriented reading” of the kavvanat halev. She emphasises that such an understanding rejects binary or dualistic understandings and instead posits a more complex idea of both body and theory of prayer.

Derek Krueger, “Beyond Eden: Placing Adam, Eve, and Humanity in Byzantine Hymns,” explores the placement of both Adam and Eve in Byzantine Christian hymns, noting that the hymns function to place the congregation “into [the Bible’s] topography.” Each hymn treats the characters differently, and places both characters and Eden in slightly different arrangements of topography. Krueger argues that this deliberately draws the audience into each scene, allowing them to situate themselves within the story, visualising both paradise and exile as physical places to be experienced and remembered as part of liturgical worship.

David Frankfurter’s contribution, “‘It is Esrmpe who appeals!’: Place, Object, and Performance in a Quest for Pregnancy in Roman Egypt,” combines performance and ritual in discussing a rite performed at grave sites throughout the Greek world. This interaction, whereby a woman reads aloud a letter to a mortuary god and places the appeal at the shrine, brings together an unusual place (the necropolis) and an unusual object (the pa-pyrus letter). Here, the papyrus request is given significance by its location, and as Frankfurter points out, also functions both spatially and materially—not just as a plea for help from the divine, but as a public device that engages societal pressure to assist in the fulfilment of the request.

AnneMarie Luijendijk, “‘If you order that I wash my feet, then bring me this ticket’: Encountering Saint Colluthus at Antinoë,” focuses specifically on the Shrine of Saint Colluthus in Egypt, known to the ancients as “the place,” using archaeological and literary evidence to explore how the shrine may have been used and understood by its patrons. Beyond simple hagiography, Luijendijk stresses the importance of exploring discarded oracle tickets (“seemingly insignificant, discarded documents”) in order to gain a more thorough picture of the shrine, its practices, and of the rich tapestry of culture that surrounded it.

Mike Ahuvia, “The Spatial and Social Dynamics of Jewish Babylonian Incantation Bowls,” draws the reader’s attention to a group of “incantation bowls” unearthed in Nippur. These bowls seem to have been used as charms by Jewish people, customised to each family in order to meet particular needs such as health, casting out demons, and so on. Ahuvia points out that these bowls were deployed alongside magical ritual in order to be fully effective, and so provide an insight into a hitherto relatively under-developed space: the domestic Jewish home.

Together, these studies represent a helpful variety of approaches to space and place, demonstrating the continued importance of bringing to-gether theoretical studies with more material findings in order to draw out further information about the historical past.

Review by
U-Wen Low
Alphacrucis College, Melbourne
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