Abstract

The Jewish Aramaic incantation bowls from talmudic Babylonia quoted biblical material as part of their written spells, in order to bolster the apotropaic ritual. Current scholarship is making it increasingly apparent that these spells were part of the Jewish “mainstream,” rather than its margins. The bowl spells were often (sometimes?) produced by professional scribes many of whom—as I argue here —were also steeped in Jewish Scripture and liturgy. Moreover, given the high number of artifacts found, the spells can be considered representative of widespread religious practices and beliefs. The quotations are thus an unparalleled (and the only Babylonian epigraphic) source for the study of pre-Masoretic Bible traditions. The orthographic practices encountered in the biblical quotations become a lens through which to view attitudes to the Bible’s “writtenness” and the functions of writtenness, orality, and different types of memory. On the one hand, many spells provide evidence for the prominence of orality and memorization in Bible transmission and its reproduction. On the other, many bowls also imply a conceptual prestige of writtenness, alongside scribal training. At the same time, most bowls suggest a degree of self-sufficiency of the Bible as an oral, memorized, and liturgical text. While the Bible was construed as a written authority by the rabbis, in practice, its written component was likely neither always present, nor strictly necessary for achieving spiritual efficacy within the spells.

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