Ancient Iconic Texts

How and Why Books Matter - Essays on the Social Function of Iconic Texts - James W Watts

James W Watts [+-]
Syracuse University
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Professor in the Department of Religion


This chapter probes the origins of iconic textuality in the ancient Near East, informed by post-colonial perspectives on iconic texts. The need to create material artifacts as proof of economic transactions motivated the invention of writing in Mesopotamia. The surviving art and texts from ancient Egypt and Mesopotamia exhibit at least four forms of iconic textuality: monumental inscriptions, scribal portraiture, displays and manipulations of ritual texts, and beliefs in heavenly texts. Iconic ritualization was also a key factor in creating the first Western scripture, the Jewish Torah. It narrates the gift of divinely written tablets to Moses that are enshrined in a book reliquary (the Ark of the Covenant) that represents God’s presence with Israel. Simultaneously, Moses writes scrolls of Torah (law or instruction) that accompany the Ark of the Covenant and report on the tablets’ origins and contents. Jewish tradition soon came to regard the Torah, too, as written in heaven. In this way, iconic display joined ritualized expression and semantic interpretation to scripturalize Torah in antiquity, as well as later bibles that incorporate it.

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Watts, James. Ancient Iconic Texts. How and Why Books Matter - Essays on the Social Function of Iconic Texts. Equinox eBooks Publishing, United Kingdom. Feb 2019. ISBN 9781781797686. Date accessed: 17 Oct 2018 doi: 10.1558/equinox.35887. Feb 2019

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