Literary Creativity and Forgetting

A BRANE Collective Panel convened by Jenna Stover-Kemp
Thursday, Oct. 8 10 am PDT

[Image Credit: Guy Laramée, Whale.


We who study ancient Mediterranean texts tend to be concerned with successfully transmitting the past: from scribes copying to performers memorizing, we highlight the preservation of what has come before. Even our departures from the preservation model still emphasize direct connection to the past. New texts rewrite, interpret, or even defy older ones, but in doing that, continue to reflect them.

But what if forgetting is just as important a part of ancient text production as remembering? What new insights might we gain if we change our emphasis on forgetting as loss to forgetting as a site of productivity? In this workshop, we will explore how forgetting functions within the literature of Jewish antiquity and what the forgotten yields in terms of creativity in the tradition. While remembering texts bring them forward in time, the very process of transmission requires disconnection from predecessors and originals, abandoning some details, obscuring others, and combining precursors in creative ways. We will examine examples of literary creativity as acts of cultural forgetting intertwined with memory, theorizing the role of loss in the formation of the tradition.

Papers will be precirculated to registered participants.

Eric X. Jarrard Jenna Stover-Kemp Julia Rhyder James Nati
Madeline Wyse Annette Yoshiko Reed Rebecca Scharbach Wollenberg


A Sea Change Event: Josiah’s Death in 2 Chronicles 35 as an Inverted Exodus
Eric X. Jarrard

This paper argues that Josiah’s death in 2 Chronicles 35 is an inversion of the exodus event, and thus a significant and intentional departure from its Vorlage (2 Kings 23). It begins by establishing an intentional allusion to the exodus event through both narrative inversion and shared vocabulary. This inversion, I contend, functions as a form of memory work intended to (re)construct identity in the post-exilic period. In this way, the Chronicler does not seek to replace or rewrite its Vorlage, but rather to refract—or contrafact—a self-reflexive rendering of previous events in order to create a more instructive reading of Israel’s past for the Second Temple period. Thus, this paper offers: (1) a plausible solution and explanation as to why Josiah’s death in 2 Chronicles 35 significantly deviates from its Deuteronomistic Vorlage while also remaining remarkably consistent to the Vorgeschichte derived from ancient Near Eastern treaty prologue formularies; and perhaps more importantly (2) insight into how an idea can crystallize into a physical space—a monument, stela, etc.—and then metastasize in a specific and eminently useful way in the imagination of a group.

Eric Jarrard‘s current project, Sea & Sinai, considers how physical spaces—monuments—affect collective identity as evinced in textual traditions in and beyond the Hebrew Bible. By examining how the sea and Sinai events are repetitively interlinked, this project demonstrates how non-legal texts adopt the ancient Near Eastern treaty prologue formulary to develop a stable and predictable model of time.

Accidental Apocalypse: The Condensation of Temporality and Metaphor 
Jenna Stover-Kemp

Scholarship has widely accepted that there is a direct link between prophetic and apocalyptic thought, though the characterization of the process of change is theorized in different directions. Whereas most studies take for granted the outcome of the apocalyptic, I will suggest that the apocalyptic is, in part, a hermeneutical byproduct of the acts of cultural memory that constitute the formation of the prophetic text. 

This essay will be a case study as I examine the diachronic layers of Isaiah 2:6-21 and suggest that as the secondary scribe adds a layer of text directly responding to Isaiah’s, they are recalling Isaiah’s text as a memory. But in their act of overwriting, they are causing aspects of it to be forgotten as they produce a new version of the literary product. I will examine this process as it pertains in particular to issues of metaphor and temporality, arguing that the secondary scribe reads Isaiah’s text, which focuses on the actions of the Storm God in the present, in light of deuteronomistic thought concerning idolatry. This hermeneutic moves that which reflected a “vertical” temporality (to borrow Benedict Anderson’s language) into a “horizontal temporality;” it likewise shifts the metaphorical into the literal. Though this literary layer and the corresponding new product does not reflect a shift into the apocalyptic, the collision of vertical and horizontal temporalities is a necessary precondition of the apocalyptic. The later-developed apocalyptic hermeneutic is not determined within this moment of text formation, but is an eventual hermeneutical byproduct of the condensation of temporalities and metaphor in the layers of the text.

Jenna Stover-Kemp is a Ph.D. candidate finishing a dissertation entitled, “Forgetting to Remember: Theorizing the Role of the Forgotten in the Production of the Hebrew Bible. She is interested in the dynamics of cultural memory reflected in the text formation practices of the Hebrew Bible. 

Forget-me-not: War commemoration in Judean festivals
Julia Rhyder

The Hebrew Bible is replete with narratives of warfare and collective violence. Yet for much of the history of Judah, these episodes were not commemorated in festivals. To be sure, they were recorded in the texts that scribes copied, interpreted, and revised over the generations. But in terms of the Judean festal calendar, collective violence and wars seem to have been largely ‘forgotten.’

This ‘forgetting’ changed during the Hellenistic period, when there was a far greater concern to integrate particular military victories and acts of collective violence into the celebration of festivals. An especially noteworthy example of this shift is 1 and 2 Maccabees, which promote the new festivals of Hanukkah, Nicanor’s Day, and Simon’s Day as a means of commemorating the military victories of the Maccabean revolt.

Given that the manner in which the past is remembered is contingent upon contemporary contexts, this paper considers what changed in the Judean culture and its political positioning which ensured that it became a priority to commemorate the wars and violence of the past. This investigation requires us to situate Judean texts that describe commemorative festivals within the context of broader eastern Mediterranean festal cultures, especially those that invoked the memory of war as means of legitimizing monarchy and facilitating cultural competition.

Julia Rhyder is the author of Centralizing the Cult: The Holiness Legislation in Leviticus 17–26 (Mohr Siebeck, 2019), and is currently writing a book on festivals and war commemoration in Hellenistic Judean traditions.

Were All Texts Meant to be Transmitted?: The Three Vices Tradition in Early Judaism
James Nati

There is a tradition of “three vices” that can be found across a set of texts from the Second Temple period, including the Damascus Document, the Aramaic Levi Document, and the book of Jubilees. Each text preserves either a reference to or a depiction (or multiple depictions in the case of Jubilees) of the transmission of this tradition from the mouth of one of the patriarchs. In each instance, however, the list of vices differs slightly from the others. Scholars have attempted to explain how this tradition was altered in the course of its transmission, either by mechanical error or deliberate interpretive change, but these proposals are not very convincing. This paper suggests instead that it is an essential characteristic of this tradition that it is always transmitted differently. The various iterations of the list are not owed to mistakes or various interpretations of a prior list, but rather they reflect a tradition that was understood to be partially forgotten.

James Nati is interested in ideas of authenticity in biblical and Second Temple literature. He is currently putting some finishing touches on his first book, Textual Criticism and the Ontology of Literature in Early Judaism: An Analysis of the Serekh ha-Yahad.

Early Tafsīr: Literary Creativity at the Intersection of Remembering and Forgetting
Madeline Wyse

Early tafsīr (Quranic exegesis) thrived in the fertile space created, on the one hand, by a keen drive to collect and preserve midrashic and biblical traditions – traditions understood as necessary background to the Quran and perceived as at risk of being forgotten – and, on the other, by the fruitful uprooting of these traditions from their accustomed contexts and networks of association. As an extreme example, Poorthuis has demonstrated in the case of the story of David and Bathsheba that the early tafsīr tradition centered a collection of apologetic midrashim as the primary authoritative “Torah” account, while entirely passing over or forgetting the Hebrew Bible version. This displacement and erasure of the Hebrew Bible released both the midrash and the Quran from a web of otherwise compelling (and restrictive) interpretive connections. Midrashim that worked to excuse David’s crimes functioned quite differently without crimes to excuse. And Quran 38:21-25, which might otherwise have been read as a simple allusion to the parable of the stolen sheep in 2 Samuel 12:1-7, opened itself up to an array of possible new interpretations.

We will consider a subtler case in which the text of the Hebrew Bible and a version of a common midrashic trope are woven into an interpretation of the Quran in a space of simultaneous remembering and forgetting. The text in question is a retelling of the story of the Binding of Isaac, attributed to the early popular exegete and storyteller al-Suddī and included in Tafsīr al-Ṭabarī. With a close variant in the History of al-Ṭabarī, we will also consider what the tale reveals about the role of orality and textuality at the mnemonic interface between storyteller and written compilation, as well as the more elusive interface between Torah text/speaker and Muslim exegete.

Madeline Wyse is a Ph.D. student who is particularly interested in the theories of language and hermeneutics developed and variously deploying in usūl al-fiqh (Islamic legal theory), the Talmud, midrash and classical tafsīr (Quranic exegesis).


Annette Yoshiko Reed’s research spans Second Temple Judaism, early Christianity, and Jewish/Christian relations in Late Antiquity, with a special concern for retheorizing religion, identity, and difference.

Rebecca Scharbach Wollenberg’s research focuses on the diverse ways in which historical rabbinic Jewish communities have imagined the Hebrew Bible as a revelation and the varied modes in which they have engaged with the biblical tradition in practice. 

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