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Fragments of cuneiform medicine in the Babylonian Talmud: Knowledge Transfer in Late Antiquity

Final Report Summary - BABMED (Fragments of cuneiform medicine in the Babylonian Talmud: Knowledge Transfer in Late Antiquity)

The BabMed Project has undertaken the ambitious objective of tracing influences from cuneiform medicine on medical passages in the Babylonian Talmud. This research question is itself based upon several underlying suppositions, such as whether cuneiform writing survived into later periods than is usually assumed, at least into the third century CE. Although there are no dated cuneiform documents from later than the late first century CE, the many Akkadian loanwords and expressions to be found in the Talmud suggest the Babylonian medical tablets were still legible during the early stages of formation of the Babylonian Talmud. Second, the assumption is that informants of rabbis in Babylonia were likely to have been versed in Babylonian rather than in Greek (or any other foreign) system of medicine. The many Akkadian calques and expressions within Babylonian Talmudic medicine suggest origins emerging from local Babylonian medical theory and practices.
In order to pursue this research agenda, it was necessary to establish a framework under which the main characteristics of cuneiform medicine could be recognised and assessed, in order to serve as a frame of reference for Talmudic medicine. This required a much more comprehensive exposure to Babylonian medicine than was previously possible before the beginning of BabMed, since so much of the primary source material was neither edited nor translated. The strategy adopted was to embark on intensive studies of disease from different parts of human anatomy, namely from the head (eye disease) and abdomen (digestive-track disease), women's diseases, as well as complete edition of a lengthy compendium of symptoms, based on human anatomy (head to foot) and general pathologies. These studies, in final stages of completion, have created the appropriate comparative framework for assessing Talmudic medicine. The BabMed publications provide a wealth of accurate newly edited material on descriptions of pathologies, drugs, and treatments, with differentiated medical strategies dedicated to specific diseases and conditions.
Many unexpected results have emerged from the cuneiform medical data, such as a re-assessment of the dominant perception of Akkadian prescriptions as being heavily coloured by magical spells, and hence not 'medicine' on a par with Hippocratic practices. The BabMed results show that incantations within cuneiform medical prescriptions are not actually 'magical' in comparison with theurgic incantations, which deal with demons, ghosts, angry gods and witchcraft. Within medicine, the incantations tend to be etiological narratives intended to explain the primordial history of disease within the natural order or disease vectors, without reference to gods, by using allegorical metaphors. These medical incantations supply important clues to theories of disease causation.
Moreover, important dynamic changes of direction which took place during the course of BabMed, reacting to how the research was developing. The most significant change was the decision to edit the crucial Assyrian Medical Catalogue, a poorly understood fragmentary cuneiform text which, when reconstructed by BabMed, surprisingly proved to be a comprehensive catalogue of 23 cuneiform medical treatises listed by their incipits, identifying an established medical corpus comparable to the later Corpus Hippocraticum. The reconstruction of the Assyrian Medical Catalogue has resulted in a major BabMed team publication (BAM 9, Steinert ed. 2018), which will alter current debates on Babylonian medicine by defining the separate component disciplines of medical therapy, ritual-healing, and diagnostics, revealing the highly systematic character of Babylonian medicine. Additionally, the publication of traditional canonical healing incantations (BAM 8, Geller 2016) allows for the essential contrast between incantations within magical texts and medical prescriptions.
BabMed has made good use of Digital Humanities by mounting hundreds of transliterations of cuneiform medical and related texts (including physiognomic omens) onto the BabMed website platform. This is a basis for future research initiatives, providing significant steps towards eventual translations and lexical studies of Babylonian medicine.
The final results of BabMed have provided firm answers to the overall research question, whether the origins of Aramaic medicine in the Babylonian Talmud can be traced back to cuneiform medicine from earlier periods but from the same locations. One unanticipated outcome from this quest came from the many similarities between medicine in the Talmud and other forms of Aramaic medicine from Late Antiquity, known from Mandaic and Syriac. These texts, which have never been compared with the Talmud, shared the same characteristics, namely that all showed clear evidence of being based ultimately upon cuneiform medicine, with little evidence of Greek or Persian medical influences.
The Babylonian Talmud contains extensive passages of medical information based upon medical theory and practice preserved in Aramaic, which at some point had been translated and adapted from Akkadian prototypes. This information is important as a reflection of the survival of Akkadian language and its contribution towards technical science in Mesopotamia of late antiquity.