When we encounter a text, whether ancient or modern, we typically start at the beginning and work our way toward the end. In Tracking the Master Scribe, Sara J. Milstein demonstrates that for biblical and Mesopotamian literature, this habit can yield misleading results.
In the ancient Near East, "master scribes" - those who had the authority to produce and revise literature - regularly modified their texts in the course of transmission. One of the most effective techniques for change was to add something to the front - what Milstein calls "revision through introduction." This method allowed scribes to preserve their received material while simultaneously recasting it. As a result, numerous biblical and Mesopotamian texts manifest multiple and even competing viewpoints. Due to the primary position of these additions, such reworked texts are often read solely through the lens of their final contributions. This is true not only for biblical and cuneiform texts in their final forms, but also for Mesopotamian texts that are known from multiple versions: first impressions carry weight.
Rather than "nail down every piece of the puzzle," Tracking the Master Scribe demonstrates what is to be gained when engaging questions of textual transmission with attention to how scribes actually worked. Working from the two earliest corpora that allow us to track large-scale change, the book provides broad overviews of evidence available for revision through introduction, as well as a set of detailed case studies that offer fresh insight into well-known biblical and Mesopotamian literary texts. The result is the first comprehensive and comparative profile of this key scribal method: one that was not only ubiquitous in the ancient Near East but also epitomizes the attitudes of the master scribes toward the literature that they produced.
About the author
Sara J. Milstein is Assistant Professor of Hebrew Bible and Ancient Near Eastern Studies at the University of British Columbia.