Medicine, Sciences and Knowledge in Biblical and Talmudic Traditions


The group focuses primarily on medical and scientific ideas and practices in the Biblical and Rabbinic traditions in a wider sense (e.g. New Testament, Qumranic texts, so-called "apocryphal" traditions, Targum, early Christian texts), as well as in closely related or contemporary traditions (e.g. ancient Babylonia, Persian, Graeco-Roman, Manichean, or early Islamic). The research unit will address the complex and often subtle processes of reception, adaptation and production of medicine and various sciences in the transformative period of (late) antiquity as a rich ‘encyclopaedic’ body of knowledge within their broader trans-cultural, philosophical and religious contexts. Biblical, Talmudic and other traditions of ancient knowledge making will be studied in relation to similar corpora (e.g. scientific, legal and religious compilational texts) and as embedded within broader intellectual trends (e.g. transformation of Wisdom or paideia, concepts of human/nature, emerging Christianity, translation movements). 

Particular attention will be paid also to the interplay between form and content, hermeneutics and representations as specific ways of appropriating scientific ideas and practices to particular cultural or religious epistemologies or knowledge regimes. Contributions should aim at offering a comparative perspective on the embeddedness of medical and scientific discourses in their surrounding cultures (ancient Mesopotamian, Near Eastern, Graeco-Roman, Persian, Byzantine, Syriac etc.). The aim is to examine from a decidedly comparative perspective how the authors gathered, organised and framed their medical and scientific interests through compilation strategies and discursive patterns. On one hand, such a perspective will help assessing ancient Jewish and Talmudic scientific ideas within the broader history of ancient knowledge cultures. On the other, comparison will allow to determine the distinct epistemologies or particular Jewishness of such discourse. Furthermore, a synchronic and diachronic perspective highlights various processes of transmission, transfer, rejection, modification and invention of pertaining concepts and practices. While addressing the interaction between various medical discourses, the group will consider different strategies (borrowing/ camouflage/ negation etc.) which may relate to still unsolved questions in the transcultural history of science(s) and knowledge in (Late) Antiquity.




Medicine, Ancient Science and Knowledge, Epistemology, Encyclopaedia

Current Term:



Markham J. Geller
University College London

Lennart Lehmhaus
Eberhard Karls University of Tübingen

Member Area

Sofia 2024 Call for Papers

When No Expert is in Reach – Pragmatic Texts, Handbooks and Compendia and their Epistemic and Cultural Functions

For our thematic focus in 2024, papers are invited to comparatively explore broader trends of practical or pragmatic texts that convey medical and other (scientific) knowledge with a specific focus on its applicability and usefulness in Jewish, Christian, Muslim and other traditions. Studies may address the intertwined dimensions of epistemological creativity and material dimensions: namely, on the one hand the structure or order of knowledge; its application and practical value, and its didactic dimensions. On the other, papers can focus on the material and wider sociocultural aspects and confinements of the texts under discussion: hence, 

In the ancient, late antique and medieval periods, scholars in the Near East, around the Mediterranean and beyond often agglomerated knowledge in various fields of ancient sciences (broadly conceived including also “disciplines” such as magic, divination, dream interpretation etc.). While some broader “encyclopaedic” and compilational impulses took place in scholarly as well as in imperial institutions in Jewish, Mesopotamian, Roman, Byzantine. Christian, Carolingian, Irano-Persian and early Islamic contexts. In which the collection, codification and institutionalization of knowledge which was perceived and utilized as ‘cultural capital’ by various players in different ways.

However, the accumulation and ordering of knowledge were not always in the focus. Scholars have recently observed a surge of technical medical collections (e.g., for medicine: the sunagogai by Oribasius/ Aetius/Paulos; Cassius Felix/Theodorus Priscianus/Marcellus Empiricus in Latin; but also the Medicina Plinii, Ps.-Apuleius’ Herbarium, Coptic recipe collections, and the Aramaic ‘magic’ recipe book ‘Sword of Moses’) - entangled with these encyclopaedic developments but also at times opposed to them. This compilational drive, in Late Antiquity often understood as mere eclecticism feeding on the ‘golden past’, reveals its own epistemic creativity (van der Eijk 2010; van Deun/Macé 2009). The primarily non-theoretical compilations – ranging from recipe collections (pharmacopoeia/euporista) and magical, astrological or astro-medical handbooks to compendia in other areas (mechanics, warfare, agriculture, architecture etc.) – constitute important source that still awaits a comparison as regards structure and content.

In Talmudic literature, single advice with therapies and recipes is often interspersed but forms also longer clusters or discursive formations that can be regarded as a scientific collection – such as the Vade Mecum in b.Gittin, the ‘Dream Book’ in b.Berahot or some clusters of zoological, geographical (spatial) or astrological-astronomical knowledge. Similarly, also in primarily Christian, Irano-Persian or Muslim texts (and contexts), one finds such practical or applied/applicable knowledge of various kinds as recipes interspersed in larger, often rather religious, manuscripts or discussions of medicine, botany etc. in monastic texts. 

A second point of contact and for comparison is the decidedly pragmatic focus of many works and Talmudic passages including also apotropaic approaches, amulets, charms and healing rituals or incantations which deviate from or supplement classical knowledge in different areas. Contributions may question the straightforward connection of these developments to a narrative of ‘Christianization’ and ‘decline’ of ancient medicine and sciences, as has been often drawn in earlier research. Or, they can contextualize these developments with an eye to the various transfers of knowledge in and between ancient cultures.

Papers, can address one or some of the points mentioned above focusing on a specific texts or through a comparative reading of sources and historical backgrounds. This may include the pragmatic and compilational features shared between Mesopotamian, Persian, Graeco-Roman or Arabic texts, monastic orders or Talmudic and Midrashic collections but also the various differences and genuine approaches. The discussion can inquire into textual structures, history of manuscript transmission (selection, dissociation or re-arrangement) or the intertwining with other discursive forms (dialectics, precedents, case stories, poetry, liturgy etc.). 

On another level, contributions may also concentrate on the material and social dimensions of these pragmatic texts. Which material basis (e.g. materia medica) or other ‘scientific’ knowledge and infrastructure do they presuppose (e.g. domestic medicine; agricultural or astrological self-help)? Are those texts, actually, meant to be used or is the pragmatic impetus only a gesture? By whom and for whom were such texts produced; who read and used them and how? This might address also questions of the identities and backgrounds of practitioners, their competition, practice vs. theory and the nature of the clients, patients or addressees (i.e. lay medicine).

We are especially interested in presentations on rabbinic traditions (from antiquity and throughout the long Jewish medieval period) against the foil of their literary and socio-cultural background(s) as well as on earlier and contemporary discourses in the Bible, post-biblical (Second Temple) traditions, and early Christian texts (in Greek, Syriac, Coptic, Armenian, Latin etc.). In order to offer a comparative perspective, contributions on the embeddedness of these discourses in ancient Babylonian and other Near Eastern cultures (Syriac, Persian, Mandean, Arabic, Indian etc.) are highly welcome. Papers may explore synchronic and diachronic perspective that highlight various processes of transmission, transfer, rejection, modification and invention of the issues at hand. Those presentations will contribute to the transcultural history of science(s) and knowledge in (late) antiquity and beyond.

We would like to stress that, alongside the thematic focus in 2024 on “Encyclopaedic Trends”, we invite also contributions that fall into the general scope of our group as outlined above on our website. Accordingly, proposals engaging more generally with medical or other sciences and knowledge and practice in Jewish traditions or related cultures are more than welcome.

The EABS Annual Conference in Sofia 2024 will be in a hybrid format. So, it will be possible to remotely present a paper via a video conferencing system. Please keep this option in mind, if you cannot attend the conference in person for various reasons. If you prefer to present virtually, please let us know this beforehand (ideally, in your proposal) or at your earliest convenience.

The “Medicine, Sciences and Knowledge in Biblical and Talmudic Traditions” group invites paper proposals from scholars of diverse disciplinary and regional backgrounds, from different institutions and at different career stages. Modest stipends for travel, accommodation and registration fees might be available for selected early career scholars/junior faculty without institutional or other funding (please indicate this in your application and/or contact the chairs). Another option are the EABS Research and Travel grants you can apply for soon after the acceptance of your proposal.

While the formal application should be done through the online system of EABS, please feel free to email the unit chairs your proposals and contact us in case of any questions related to this call or to the research unit in general: Markham J. Geller and Lennart Lehmhaus.