Menstrual Impurity and Difference in Babylonian Judaism and its Sasanian Context

Secunda, Samuel. 2020. The Talmud’s red fence: Menstrual impurity and difference in Babylonian Judaism and its Sasanian context. New York: Oxford University Press.

The Talmud’s Red Fence explores how rituals and beliefs concerning menstruation in the Babylonian Talmud and neighboring Sasanian religious texts were animated by difference and differentiation. It argues that the practice and development of menstrual rituals in Babylonian Judaism was a product of the religious terrain of the Sasanian Empire, where groups like Syriac Christians, Mandaeans, Zoroastrians, and Jews defined themselves in part based on how they approached menstrual impurity. It demonstrates that menstruation was highly charged in Babylonian Judaism and Sasanian Zoroastrian, where menstrual discharge was conceived of as highly productive female seed yet at the same time as stemming from either primordial sin (Eve eating from the tree) or evil (Ahrimen’s kiss). It argues that competition between rabbis and Zoroastrians concerning menstrual purity put pressure on the Talmudic system, for instance in the unusual development of an expert diagnostic system of discharges. It shows how Babylonian rabbis seriously considered removing women from the home during the menstrual period, as Mandaeans and Zoroastrians did, yet in the end deemed this possibility too “heretical.” Finally, it examines three cases of Babylonian Jewish women initiating menstrual practices that carved out autonomous female space. One of these, the extension of menstrual impurity beyond the biblically mandated seven days, is paralleled in both Zoroastrian Middle Persian and Mandaic texts. Ultimately, Talmudic menstrual purity is shown to be driven by difference in its binary structure of pure and impure; in gendered terms; on a social axis between Jews and Sasanian non-Jewish communities; and textually in the way the Palestinian and Babylonian Talmuds took shape in late antiquity.

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Iranica Antiqua, Volume 54

The table of contents of the latest issue (54) of the journal Iranica Antiqua:

Zoroastrianism, Manichaeism and Christianity in Contact

Entangled Religions, Vol. 11, No. 2 (2020): Formative exchanges between the Sasanid Empire and late antique Rome: Zoroastrianism, Manichaeism and Christianity in contact

The 11th Vol. of the journal Entangled Religions contians four articles, presented original at the same-named workshop, held at the Center for Religious Studies (CERES) of the Ruhr Universität Bochum, 1-2nd June 2017. This workshop aimed to explore formative dynamics of contacts, interactions, and exchanges that took place in the Sasanian and Roman Empires between Zoroastrianism, Manichaeism, and Christianity at multiple levels.

All articles are open-access and free to download:

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Magic in Ancient Iran

Jong, Albert de. 2019. Iran. In David Frankfurter (ed.), Guide to the study of ancient magic (Religions in the Graeco-Roman World 189). Leiden: Brill.

In the midst of academic debates about the utility of the term “magic” and the cultural meaning of ancient words like mageia or khesheph, this Guide to the Study of Ancient Magic seeks to advance the discussion by separating out three topics essential to the very idea of magic. The three major sections of this volume address (1) indigenous terminologies for ambiguous or illicit ritual in antiquity; (2) the ancient texts, manuals, and artifacts commonly designated “magical” or used to represent ancient magic; and (3) a series of contexts, from the written word to materiality itself, to which the term “magic” might usefully pertain.

The abstract for Albert de Jong’s chapter:

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The law code of Simeon, Bishop of Rev-Ardashir

Harrak, Amir (ed.). 2020. The law code of Simeon, Bishop of Rev-Ardashir (Texts from Christian Late Antiquity 57). Piscataway: Gorgias Press LLC.

The Law Code of Simeon of Rev-Ardashir, originally written in Persian, was translated into Syriac by an anonymous monk of Bēṭ-Qatrāyē. The Code’s author, possibly to be identified with a rebellious metropolitan mentioned in the letters of Patriarch Īšoʿ-yahb III (the early 7th cuntary), aims to clarify theoretical scriptural law, and to address family matters including inheritance and the role of slave. Presented in the form of questions and answers, the law book consists of 22 chapters and begins with some reflections on the sources of Christian law, for which the author gives priority to the tradition of the Fathers. The new edition is based on a single manuscript housed at the Vatican Library. This Law Code had been previously published by Sachau with German translation and noted and comments (1914). 

Table of Contents

  • Introduction
  • Outline
  • Law of Moses
  • Acts of Synods
  • Code of Īšōʿ-yahb the Catholicos
  • Consensus
  • Equivalent Retaliation (lex talionis)
  • Manuscript
  • Previous Editions and Translations
  • Summary
  • Text and Translation
  • The apology of the One who was Asked by Him (=Bishop Simeon) to Translate this Book from Persian to Syriac
  • Forward of the Book: Justification (of Simeon) Addressed to the One Who Requested from Him to Put in Writing the Book
  • Chapter One: What Goal Does the Teaching of Our Lord Have, and Why He did not Lay Down Any Law Concerning Juridical Decisions?
  • Chapter Two: Why Do We Not Practice Law on the Basis of Mosaic Law?
  • (Chapter Three): Concerning the Origins of Past and Present Laws Practiced in the Church
  • Beginning of All Laws
  • Bibliography of Works Cited

Amir Harrak is full professor at the University of Toronto. His specialty is Aramaic and Syriac languages and literatures. His many publications deal with Syriac epigraphy, chronography, and cataloguing of manuscripts.

This book announcements is prepeared and written by Hossein Sheikh-Bostanabad (independent scholar).

In the Path of Conquest

Heckel, Waldemar. 2020. In the Path of Conquest: Resistance to Alexander the Great. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

This book offers a fresh insight into the conquests of Alexander the Great by attempting to view the events of 336-323 BCE from the vantage point of the defeated. The extent and form of the resistance of the populations he confronted varied according to their previous relationships with either the Macedonian invaders or their own Achaemenid rulers. The internal political situations of many states–particularly the Greek cities of Asia Minor–were also a factor. In the vast Persian Empire that stretched from the Aegean to the Indus, some states surrendered voluntarily and others offered fierce resistance. Not all regions were subdued through military actions. Indeed, as the author argues, the excessive use of force on Alexander’s part was often ineffective and counterproductive.

In the Path of Conquest examines the reasons for these varied responses, giving more emphasis to the defeated and less to the conqueror and his Macedonian army. In the process, it debunks many long-held views concerning Alexander’s motives, including the idea that his aim was to march to the eastern limits of the world. It also provides a fresh reevaluation of Darius III’s successes and failures as a commander. Such a study involves rigorous analysis of the ancient sources, and their testimony is presented throughout the book in the form of newly translated passages. A unique portrait of a well-known age, In the Path of Conquest will significantly alter our understanding of Alexander’s career.

Canon of Ancient Iranian Art

Colburn, Henry. 2020. The canon of ancient Iranian art: From grand narratives to local perspectives. In Amy Gansell and Ann Shafer (eds.), Testing the canon of ancient Near Eastern art and archaeology. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

The canon of ancient Iranian art coalesced during the heyday of archaeological research in Iran during the 1950s and 1960s. Scholars sought to reconcile both excavated material from a series of type sites and unexcavated objects, with a sequence of historical and cultural phases from Proto-Elamite to Sasanian. Consequently, the canon has some notable weaknesses. First, the term “Iranian” can refer to geography or people, either of which excludes important material. Second, the periodization of the canon relies on Mesopotamian and Mediterranean history, which is not always a good fit for Iran. Third, the use of style to assign material to these periods relies on the problematic assumption that multiple artistic styles cannot coexist at the same time and place. This chapter argues that it is useful to adopt an approach that focuses instead on individual sites or micro-regions, thus better reflecting the richness and diversity of ancient Iranian art.

The Art of Elam

Álvarez-Mon, Javier. 2020. The Art of Elam CA. 4200–525 BC. London & New York: Routledge.

Not unlike a gallery of historical paintings, this comprehensive treatment of the rich heritage of ancient Iran showcases a visual trail of the evolution of human society, with all its leaps and turns, from its origins in the earliest villages of southwest Iran at around 4200 BC to the rise of the Achaemenid Persian empire in CA. 525 BC. Richly illustrated with 1,450 photographs, 190 line drawings, and digital reconstructions of hundreds of artefacts—some of which have never before been published—The Art of Elam goes beyond formal and thematic boundaries to emphasize the religious, political, and social contexts in which art was created and functioned. Such a magisterial study of Elamite art has never been written, making The Art of Elam CA. 4200-525 BC a ground-breaking publication essential to all students of ancient art and to our current understanding of the civilizations of the ancient Near East.

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Wēś in Early Kushan Coinage

Taasob, Razieh. 2020. Representation of Wēś in early Kushan coinage: Royal or local cult? Afghanistan 3(1). 83–106.

Wēś on a coin of Huvishka (© American Numismatic Society, 1944.100.63654)

The religious significance of Wēś is a widely debated topic in the historical and numismatic study of Central Asia, including contributions from several scholars who claimed that the representation of Wēś in early Kushan coinage, particularly in the coins of Vima Kadphises (ca. ce 113–127), was an allusion to the conversion of the king to Shivaism. This paper contests the claim that the certain attributes depicted with Wēś should not be construed as belonging to the Indian god Śiva or the Greek god Heracles. The royal portrait on the obverse of the coinage of Vima Kadphises shows the king taking part in the Iranian practice of sacrificing at a fire altar, which further supports the claim that the depiction on the reverse is of the Iranian god Wēś. This paper also challenges recent studies, which suggest that the representation of Wēś may have served only as a royal cult or merely to announce the personal faith of the king. Therefore, this account seeks to remedy this misconception by pointing to the absence of other types of coins used for normal transactions by ordinary people which could have likewise represented their religious cults. Consequently, this article shows that Wēś was a religiously syncretic phenomenon that displays the religious practice of all levels of Kushan society including both the king and the locals who were mostly Bactrian-Iranian during the early Kushan period rather than Indian.

Thus Replied Zarathustra

Van Sevenant, Ann. 2020. Thus replied Zarathustra. Mimesis International.

Throughout Western universities, ancient Greek philosophy is seen as the oldest tradition of wisdom, yet the Zoroastrian way of life can be traced back to the second millennium BC. The Gathas – a collection of hymns or songs attributed to Zarathustra – contain an existential and practical philosophy avant la lettre, based on mental exercises and rituals passed down through Zoroastrian religious communities. These texts not only demonstrate the Persian thinker’s wisdom, they also introduce an important ecological focus and social practice. In Thus Replied Zarathustra, Ann Van Sevenant presents a cosmopolitan dimension to Zarathustra’s proto-philosophy that applies to all of us on an intimate level.

Mimesis Website

Ann Van Sevenant (1959), PhD in Philosophy (Brussels, 1987), is the author of eighteen books on philosophy published in Dutch, French, English and Italian. As well as being an international guest speaker, she was previously Professor of Philosophy at the University College of Antwerp and is currently an independent researcher associated with the Vrije Universiteit in Brussels.

Editor’s note: Ann Van Sevenant’s is an unusual book for us to announce. It is not philological in scope, and its treatment of the oldest Zoroastrian texts is rather unusual for our philologically dominated discipline. But perhaps therein lies the charm and challenge of this book which has not been seen by us. AZ

A predominantly bibliographic blog for Iranian Studies