Thursday, May 10, 2018

Review: Cohen, Mark E. 2015 Festivals and Calendars of the Ancient Near East

Mark E. Cohen 2015 Festivals and Calendars of the Ancient Near East CDL Press, Bethesda, Maryland. 467 pages, indexes: Month Names; Deities; General Terms; Selected Subjects;

Review by Pastor Joseph Abrahamson

Cohen’s book is a guide to the annual liturgical practices and religious holy days of cities and cultures in the ancient Near-east from the 3rd millennium BC down to the end of the 1st millennium BC. This volume is important for liturgical history, and for understanding the ways in which the reckoning of time was affected in Scripture by the cultures with whom the Israelites had contact. Knowledge of the languages is not necessary to understand the main arguments and data presented in this book, but it is necessary to evaluate the strengths of the Cohen’s etymological arguments. The reader also needs to have familiarity with the geography and history of the ancient Near-east to be able to grasp how these calendars fit into the current understanding of how these societies developed and interacted.

My interest in this volume stems from researching current claims that Christian practices and holy days were established by borrowing from or usurping particular pagan days and practices from the ancient Near-east. This particular kind of charge originated in the 19th century from protestant writers like Alexander Hislop (The Two Babylons 1853), anti-religion writers like T.S Doane (Bible Myths 1882), and schools in that century which adopted an evolutionary approach to the history of religion, for example: Religionsgeschichtliche Schule from the University of Göttingen, or the Tübingen School of F.C. Baur.

The questions these claims raised about origins for Biblical teaching, faith, and practice required actual data from the peoples and cultures to whom these various authors attributed their claims of origin. But in truth, none of those authors making the claims had any significant data. They had based their versions of history on their own various unverified presumptions of how history had to have developed.

Unfortunately the conclusions drawn by those writers have had incredible staying-power and influence. The majority of their opinions were published before there was any real data or any comparative survey of the actual texts from the periods and people.

In 1915 Benno Landsberger published the first comprehensive study of the Assyrian and Babylonian cultic calendars from the then available cuneiform texts.

In 1935 Stephen Langdon published his lectures in which he had taken into account contemporary calendars from other cultures in the Levant and the Arabian peninsula.

A great supply of newly unearthed texts have been made available since then. Through the 1960s and 1970s several studies were made of calendars in several specific cities and time periods. But many of the relevant texts were still inaccessible even to specialists in the field.

In 1993 Mark Cohen published the first comprehensive examination of calendars in the Ancient Near East.

22 years later and with the benefit of a great wealth of thousands more published texts available, with specialized studies by numerous researchers, as well as computer access and searching, Dr. Cohen has released a new comprehensive study that is 37 pages shorter than the previous! Festival Calendars of the Ancient Near East is not a revision or updating. The scope of the newly available data required a thorough analysis and a new work.

Festivals and Calendars basically replaces Cultic Calendars. There are but a small handful of references to the previous volume.

How the Book is Arranged

Cohen divides his survey by epoch and by location. Three main sections deal with the 3rd Millennium BC, the 2nd Millennium BC, and then the final section on the 2nd and 1st Millennium BC. Then follow indices of Month Names, Deities, General Terms, and Selected Subjects. Each of the three main sections is generally subdivided by location. Terms, months, and names of festivals and deities are presented in transcription and interpreted for the reader.

In his introduction “Festivals and Calendars” Cohen makes distinctions between
  1. Parochial or Native Calendars “restricted to a city and its metropolitan area.”
  2. Ethnic Calendars reflecting a usage of “traditional month names used by a population whose territory far exceeds the boundaries of the metropolitan city or kingdom in which it is used.” (1)
  3. National Calendars are defined as “mandated for use in all cities, including those previously using a parochial or ethnic calendar, comprising a ruler’s kingdom.” (2)
  4. Universal Calendars ar those “in use across major swaths of the ancient Near East that transcends the borders of cities, kingdoms, and ethnic areas, with minor differences in some locations.”
Each calendar is presented first with the dates during which the tablets testify to the calendar’s use, the location of calendar use, and a discussion of relevant texts from other locations which come to bear on this particular calendar’s development and use at this site or others.

Cohen discusses how the names of the months are known, whether or not and how we can know the arrangement of order of the months; what gaps there are, and if these months can be related to other calendars. This sometimes, but not always, gives us the order and sequence of months in the calendar year.

All the calendars of the ancient Near-east in this volume were lunar, that is, they were tied to the start of a new moon. The origins and arrangement of the Old Persian calendar (a solar calendar that lacks attestation before mid 1st millennium BC) do not come into this discussion except as a resource to help with particular month names or practices listed in other calendars. Cohen does not discuss how the new moon was spotted or defined. He does not address the issue of how National calendars were synchronized from city to city. Nor does Cohen address the issue of calendar tampering for political or religious purposes. (Sacha Stern takes up these topics in his 2012 Calendars in Antiquity)

Cohen does address whether the data in the texts show evidence of intercalation to make up for the difference between the lunar and the seasonal year. In some cases there is evidence of adding a month on at the end of the year. In others there is evidence of added days before the next new moon. In some cases the calendar runs twelve moons and begins to repeat, causing the months to take place earlier and earlier through successive years (e.g., possibly the Aššur calendar after Amorite rule, and the Nuzi/Gasur calendar). In many cases there is not enough evidence to say.

The question of intercalation is addressed by several means; for example, if a month name is tied to a particular seasonal activity, or if the name is possibly or consistently related to a similar month name from another calendar where the seasonal position of the month is known.

Cohen discusses whether and how the beginning month of the year is known, if it is. In these discussions Cohen explains previous views and their basis then lays out his own, his supporting data and his reasons. In general he has concluded that it is most likely the case that all of these lunar calendars began their year in the spring, though for many calendars there is insufficient data to establish this. He devotes space to particular cases where previous scholarship has concluded that calendars began the year in the fall (e.g., Ugarit, Emar, Pre-exilic Israel) or the winter solstice (e.g., Aššur).

Then he follows with discussions about each month, the rituals or gods celebrated during the month under discussion; what is known about the ritual and the sources for this information. Then follows a list with brief discussion of month names and festivals known from the tablets, but which cannot be attributed to a particular slot in the calendar.

For some calendars there is extensive information about some festivals. For example, Cohen is able to trace akītu festivals, and the kinūnum “Brazier” festivals through the two millennia.

Throughout each presentation Cohen gives references both to the tablets on which the data is found and to the scholars who have made the tablets available or done the research on the tablets and calendar systems.

Because the data are fragmentary or lacking in so many cases, the author points out both the uncertainty of his own conclusions and those of other researchers. This means that a great many reconstructions, positions, and conclusions advanced in this survey are tentative.

Particular Topics Related to Biblical Interpretation

Cohen’s approach of the data in the Hebrew Bible is historical critical. He does not specify which particular historical critical reconstruction he mainly espouses. When he discusses particular interpretations of the biblical text he expresses a view based in presuppositions that the text and the religion of Israel evolved through various stages of cross-cultural contact.

There are four topics that are directly related to biblical interpretation: 1) two calendars present possible evidence of the development of a seven day week, 2) a sacrifice of the first-born festival in the Emar Calendar which has been interpreted as culturally related to the Passover, 3) the Levantine calendars with a section on Pre-exilic Israel, and 4) the widespread adoption of the Standard Mesopotamian Calendar throughout the ancient Near-east at the end of the 2nd millennium and into the 1st millennium BC.

I will only respond to two of these issues: the week, and the Passover. My responses are critical and take up more space than the review above. I think that Cohen has produced a very valuable and useful work. And we are in his debt for this. His work is, I think, something of a very high standard and will be a main reference for years to come. As such it will, through citation, come to influence more popular level interpretations and histories of the ancient Near-east and of the Bible. For this last reason I wish to devote more space to these two issues in order to help readers understand the tentative nature of many of Cohen’s reconstructions.

The reader must pay attention to when Cohen is conjecturing and building on those conjectures versus when he is citing the data in the tablets and laying the data out in an orderly and usable way.

The Week

The seven day work and worship cycle found in the Pentateuch is unique in all of the ancient Near-east. The Hebrew Bible makes this ritual/liturgical cycle the centerpoint of Israel’s confession of who God is.

The creation account (Genesis 1-2) and the Monotheism in which it is grounded stands in stark contrast to every other known cosmology from the ancient world. Within academia this is a point expounded upon at length by Yehezkel Kaufmann in his 1960 The Religion of Israel, and still not adequately addressed by the rest of Old Testament historical critical scholarship.

In Exodus the seven day Sabbath cycle is set at the heart of the liturgical confession of Yahweh as the one true God over against all others. The Exodus confession (20:8-11) is a weekly restatement of how the world was created and Who the creator is. According to biblical chronology this expression of the Sabbath law was made in about 1440 BC as the Israelites came out from a polytheistic culture whose religious calendar was subdivided into decans— a ten day period.

In Deuteronomy the retelling of the Sabbath Law (5:12-15) highlights the contrast between the polytheism and ritual of Egypt with what the Lord has now established for the Israelites as they enter the promised land.

Again, outside of Old Testament Israel, there is no known ancient Near-eastern calendrical system that expresses anything like the seven day Sabbath cycle.

But that has not prevented scholars from attempting to argue for a cultural evolution of the seven day Sabbath cycle from other sources that are thought to pre-date the events and motives for the Sabbath cycle in the Hebrew Bible.

One of the most influential of these historical critical reconstructions was published in 1942 by Hildegard and Julius Lewy. [“The Origin of the Week and the Oldest West Asiatic Calendar.” Hebrew Union College Annual Vol. 17 (1942-43), pp. 1-152c] The Lewys claimed that the original calendars in the Old Assyrian period were made up of a set of seven pentecontads (50 day units) which were maintained throughout history, and which originated among the Amorites. This proposal influenced a great many writings on the calendars of Israel and of the Dead Sea Scrolls. But the Lewy’s model has been abandoned by Assyriologists due to its extremely conjectural nature, lack of evidence, and mishandling of data. [See Jonathan Ben-Dov “The History of Pentecontad Time Units (I)”  in A Teacher for All Generations: Essays in Honor of James C. VanderKam (2 vol. set), Edited by Eric F. Mason, pp 93-111 Brill, 2011 ]

In 1993 Cohen referred to the works by J. Lewy several times. But only twice did he refer to H. and J. Lewy’s “The Origin of the Week.” In both those citations the topic was the akītu festival, not the seven day week. And in those locations Cohen was pointing out that the data the Lewys had cited was actually irrelevant to the akītu festival. (Cultic Calendars pp. 245, 417). In this current volume references to the Lewys have disappeared, except in an oblique way: “There has been much speculation as to the origin of the association of seven with the non-human aspect of existence. Some have suggested that it is based on the count of heavenly bodies visible to the ancients….”(p. 428)
But there is still a drive in historical critical scholarship to formulate some kind of evolutionary developmental explanation for the seven day Sabbath cycle found in the Hebrew Bible.

In all the calendar data from the ancient Near-east there are only two examples of calendars that might have a time period of days that is regular and more brief than a month.

The first comes from the calendar established by Rim-Sîn I of Larsa (1822-1763 BC). In this calendar there is a unique notation for bureaucratic matters. It is called the ša šarrim “royal” system. Debate has centered around how to understand the dating system which does not use month names, and the format of which vary a bit from one city to the other. In the position where researchers expected the number to indicate which month there were problems with numbers over 30.  Cohen’s reconstruction is a tentative proposal that the “royal month” may have been a subset of the lunar month, and the “royal day” (the third numerical position in the system at Larsa) refers to a subdivision of a solar day. This, he proposes, would work better with an accounting system— though it does not answer all the issues raised by the data. Possibly the system is related to tabular notation as in the Old Babylonian style. Then, rather than being a dating system, the so-called “royal month” and “royal-day” would be a filing system for economic records. (pp. 238-242) Throughout these calendar texts there is no mention of a seven day system or cycle. Thus, a seven day cycle like that of Genesis is not supported by the evidence from these calendars.

The second possible example of a dating system using a group of days shorter than a month is from the Old Assyrian period calendar (1950-1710 BC texts from Kültepe Level 2 and Level 1b). This calendar used the term hamuštum, possibly to denote a regular period of days shorter than a month. The word has been much debated. Cohen summarizes the research very briefly and points to texts that equate this period with a lunar month. Cohen has made deliberate efforts to leave the previously influential theory and research of the Leyers unacknowledged— especially with reference to the fourth section of their thesis where they expounded on the term hamuštum as evidence of their pentacontad. Another term involved is šapattum, which some have tried to relate to Sabbath. However, in Assyrian šapattum refers to the full moon. (pp. 309-310)

These two examples help demonstrate an irony: The less historical critical scholars know about a cultural feature from history the more likely they are to conjecture that it is a source for something in the Bible. And what the scholars state as conjecture is taken up as historical fact by others.
The irony is not lost to this reviewer. So it is with no small sense of caution that readers should consider Cohen’s own speculation on the origin of the week starting at the bottom of page 425 through page 431.

Cohen’s Speculation on the Number Seven and the Origin of the Week

In his reading of the calendar texts the number 7 is the number of badness, unfavorableness. “The 7th day of the 7th month: this was a highly unfavorable day and, as another text notes, was a time when men cleansed themselves.” Cohen then immediately associates a mid 7th month harvest festival in this particular tablet which is “unattested elsewhere in cuneiform sources” with the Israelite fruit harvest in the middle of the seventh month. (p. 425)

The text to which he refers is Assyrian Astrolabe B. Two important points on this text: First, this text dates from the Middle Assyrian period (1400-1000 BC), so by biblical chronology this text is at best contemporary with the Mosaic Covenant, but could be later. Second, Cohen writes: “the interpretation of sections of this text must be tentative. Our understanding of the significance of these lines differs from that of Tsukimoto….” (p 425n 158). Looking at Cohen’s translation one should note he translates the relevant line: “(3) the first (-fruits?) of the year are sanctified;” meaning that the word “fruits” is in doubt.

The point of this linkage is to associate the fear of the number 7 with the Israelites. And for the next few paragraphs he brings in comparative data from other calendars discussing other features of this particular tablet. He resumes discussing the association of the number 7 on p. 427.
He restates: “The seventh day of the seventh month, more than any other day of the year was fraught with peril.” From this point his conjecture runs in this way:
  1. “Throughout the Ancient Near East, the number seven was associated with the divine.” (427)
  2. At this point he introduces the term “Other” in scare-quotes marks do denote the fearful presence of “the divine.” (427)
  3. “[C]ontact with the ‘Other’ was considered life threatening.” (427)
  4. And so the number 7 must have been considered fearful. (427)
Immediately following this Cohen returns to making his conjectural association with ancient Israel.
  1. “Since human contact with the ‘Other’ was considered life-threatening, as depicted, for instance, in the Bible, when the Israelites were afraid to hear God’s voice from Mt. Sinai lest they die, or Moses’ facial disfigurement [sic!] after meeting with God, or Uzzah’s death upon touching the Ark of the Covenant upon its entry into Jerusalem.” (427)
  2. And since there are lots of sevens in ancient Near-eastern literature associated with evil, scary ‘Other’ things. (427)
  3. People back then were uneducated and prone to fall for superstitions. (428)
  4. “We suggest that this ancient wariness of the number seven was a by-product of the numbers 3 and 10.” (428)
  5. Because everyone had 10 fingers. (428)
  6. “Psychological research has shown” the numbers 1-3 are processed differently than are the other numbers. (428)
  7. Chaos theory shows the number 3 to be important to the Universe (as does Charles Dodgson in The Hunting of the Snark). (428 and n 167) [Dodgson was no-doubt added for humor, but the Chaos theory reference is meant as evidence.]
  8. “Therefore, just perhaps, when ancients looked at their ten fingers…. Their brains subconsciously divided reality into 3 and 7. … [S]even, therefore was the non-human number, the number of the ‘Other,’ of the divine.” (428)
It is from this line of reasoning that Cohen goes on to assert “The association of seven with the divine aspect of existence manifested itself in the ancient festival calendars.” (428) Here he enlists ancient Near-east calendar data. But note his language:
  1. “A festival of the Ur III period occurred around the 7th of the 7th month.” (428f, emphasis mine)
    [“around”, ironically, the footnote at this point n169 refers to the previous page where the only mention of this festival is the sentence to which the footnote is attached. The reference should be to p. 227 where the author conjectures “Since this observance involved wailing and occurred on the 7th day of the 7th month, it raises the possibility that this observance was related to the later-attested solemn observance on that day, the sebût sebim.” (227, emphasis mine) However in his listing of textual data the festivities run at least from the 3rd of the month through the 7th.]
  2. The 2nd millenium Emar “zurku festival, may have been based upon cycles of seven (though six is possible).” (429, emphasis mine)
  3. “And, of course, for the Israelites every seventh day, the Sabbath, was a time to confront the ‘Other.’” (429)
  4. Like the rest of the ancient Near-east “so too for the Israelites every seventh day held the same dangers, and thus they refrained from working, lest things go astray.” (429)
An obvious problem with this line of conjecture is that the Sabbath is never described in this manner at all in the Hebrew Bible. So Cohen follows immediately stating his proposed evolution of the Israelite view:
“For the Israelites, this ‘negative’ view of the seventh day eventually became ‘positive,’ so that the reason for refraining from working became one of remembrance, in one case remembering YHWH’s creation of the world and elsewhere the Exodus from Egypt.”(429)
And from here Cohen enlists the Feast of Weeks, Passover, Sukkot and the Jubilee as supporting evidence because they all revolve around periods divided by sevens. (429)

This is the line of speculation that led Cohen to conclude:
“Thus the number seven was associated with and marked the divine, the other numbers the profane, and therefore, the 7th day of the 7th month was the ultimate marker of divine time.” (429)
Cohen writes this as speculative thought. He knows he is speculating and he makes the reader aware of this through his language. I have no doubt, however, that some readers will take this up as historical truth, repeating this argument without Cohen’s speculative language.

After reviewing the data, the speculation, and the arguments based on the speculation we can still say that there is nothing like the seven day Sabbath cycle in all of the known ancient Near-eastern literature. And there are no demonstrable links with the Sabbath of the Hebrew Bible with any of the surrounding liturgical cycles, calendars, myths, or law systems.

The biblical Sabbath is unique. It is described in the Hebrew Bible as confession of the unique origins of the universe and of the nature of the God who created it, a confession that distinguishes this faith from all others in the way even the days are counted.


Here we wish to consider Cohen’s evaluation of the 1200s BC Emar calendar. In this calendar there is a reference to a zukru festival in the first month of that calendar. Cohen makes some conjectural remarks relating this zukru festival to the Passover. It is necessary to understand the highly conjectural state of the reconstruction of the Emar calendar and of this city festival.

First, note that the dating of the calendar text is from two centuries after the date of the Exodus according to biblical chronology.

Second, the name of the first month is not firmly known, “The zukru ritual texts Emar 373 and 375 seem to indicate… that Zaratu/Zeratu … were … names for the first month.” (329)

Third, reconstructing the full calendar to know in which order the months occurred in the year is tentative. (330-331)

Fourth, the season in which the first month in the year took place is debated. Cohen suggests a spring season orientation, others an autumn.

Fifth, “[t]here is no evidence of intercalation at Emar.” (333) This means that Assyriologists do not really know if the same 12(?) months were repeated without reference to season or solar year. This would be similar to the Islamic calendar shifting months through the solar year.

Cohen states that his highly conjectural reconstruction “has the positive effect of aligning the zukru festival with the Israelite spring festival of the pesaḥ-offering, which we discuss below. (332)

There are two tablets which record the instructions for the zukru festival. These are Emar 373 and Emar 375. Assyriologists do not agree as to whether this festival was annual or took place once every seven years. The month named in Emar 375 is Zaratu. (333)

Cohen writes: “The observance appears to have been related to the cattle and sheep herds.” (333, emphasis mine) His caution is due to differences in how Assyriologists interpret the name of the god Dagan bēl buqāri. The word buqāri  is interpreted as “bovines” or as “offspring.” Cohen opts for the first, which in turn depends upon the tentative interpretation of another term Šaggar which usually means “full moon” but in this case, based on other evidence, might mean “the cattle pen, where a sacrifice is performed.” (334 n 12)

The meaning of the name of the festival, zukru, is debated. Cohen makes his case for “male animal.” “We suggest that the zukru festival at Emar was the occasion for the offering of male animals, presumably newborn males from the herds, to the god of the herds.” (334, emphasis mine) Note that what Cohen is suggesting is a presumption based on many levels of hypothetical reconstruction. An addition to his conjectures, there is nothing in the texts which he cites that indicates “newborn.”

One of the locations specified in the ritual for this city festival is the city gates. Dagan bēl buqāri was driven there in a chariot, animals were sacrificed, “oil and the blood from the animals was smeared on the stones.” (334)

It is here where Cohen begins to lay out his speculation how this Emar festival might have influenced Passover. I would submit, rather, that Cohen’s framing of the data has been shaped by the presupposition of just such a relationship.

Cohen writes;
“Because of the geographical proximity of the later Israelites to Emar, it seems natural to speculate as to whether the later Israelite ritual may have been influenced by its earlier neighbor to the north….”(335, emphasis mine)
And then on p. 338 in footnote 18:
Based on our interpretation of the ritual of the zukru festival, we can attempt to reconstruct the underlying narrative that was reshaped into the Exodus story of the tenth plague, the slaying of the firstborn.” (emphasis mine)
Cohen has been very clear throughout the exposition that what he is putting forward is a hypothetical reconstruction. His interpretation does not relate the mere facts of what is known and what is not known, it adds, deletes, rearranges, and nuances. What he has created is a fiction about what this zukru festival might have been. He has also rejected the biblical chronology of the Exodus in favor of a different scheme based in the historical critical schools.

It is necessary to emphasize by repetition what was said above: The less historical critical scholars know about a cultural feature from history the more likely they are to conjecture that it is a source for something in the Bible. And what the scholars state as conjecture is taken up as historical fact by others.

Cohen’s book is very well done and should be in seminary libraries as a resource. This is a great tool for understanding what can be known of the calendar systems of Israel’s Mesopotamian neighbors and how their calendars come into the biblical text and use through the Babylonian Captivity. It is filled with good and solid data, well arranged, and highly readable. Cohen’s transcriptions of the original languages are accompanied by translations. It may take some work for those who are not familiar with the original languages. His book is also filled with a great deal of conjecture. In part the conjecture is warranted because of either a lack of sufficient data, or because of unclear or contradictory data. The reader should be aware that Cohen does not accept the Hebrew Bible as historical record. He reconstructs the biblical text in accordance with his own views to fit how he thinks events unfolded. Where he comments on biblical traditions should be read with this in mind.

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