BMCR 2024.06.08

Knowledge construction in late antiquity

, Knowledge construction in late antiquity. Trends in classics. Supplementary volumes, 142. Berlin; Boston: De Gruyter, 2023. Pp. x, 306. ISBN 9783110997637.

Open Access


This volume is a significant contribution to the growing field of study focused on the material and cognitive dimensions of knowledge formation at the intersection of epistemology, history and philology. Monika Amsler, known for her work The Babylonian Talmud and Late Antique Book Culture, [1] has collected essays that align with the recent research of scholars like Andrew Riggsby, Matthew Crawford, and Jeremiah Coogan (see also the new volume by Mark Letteney).[2]

The collection spans monastic traditions, Jewish and Christian exegesis, medical and mathematical texts, offering a view of the multifaceted processes of knowledge construction, perception, and dissemination in late antiquity. The volume enriches our comprehension of late ancient intellectual cultures.

The introduction furnishes a framework and bibliography for rethinking knowledge in late antiquity and can also serve as a source for scholars investigating other historical periods. Amsler argues that the study of knowledge construction cannot be separated from the materiality that shapes the production and reception of texts and information. Probing the roots of this relatively recent way to investigate knowledge, she provides a useful panorama of theory and the making of knowledge, revisiting the linguistic turn in the Humanities and the ‘epistemological turn’ in the study of late antiquity. What she proposes to do in the volume is exactly that: a combination of the “insights from material culture and materiality studies with those gained from studies of late-antique epistemology” (p.10).

Daniel Picus,provides an analysis of the rabbinic interpretations of two biblical prophetic passages in which a prophet has a vision of a scroll he does not read: Ezekiel 2–3, and Zechariah 5. His main aim is to illustrate through these examples how rabbis understood knowledge as material, which in turn made possible the claim that the world is built on knowledge. His paper testifies to the many layers of meaning present in the image of a scroll and the material aspect of knowledge representation in the rabbinic world: “as the norms for the transmission and production of knowledge change, so too do the images that bolster and underscore the legitimacy of that production and transmission” (p. 30). Picus first provides an overview of rabbinic conceptions of knowledge and reading, stressing a “particular understanding of transmitted wisdom and knowledge as a material substance” in rabbinic texts (p. 32). He then proceeds to analyze the manner in which these texts would have resonated for their audience in a late antique context. First, he considers Sifre Numbers 103:1, showing how changes in the perception of the scroll between the biblical and the rabbinic readers also modify their interpretation, from that of an elite to that of a commoner. Second comes Leviticus Rabbah 6:3, which also centers on a written object rather than on writing. Finally, he looks at the Babylonian Talmud (Bavli Gittin 60a and Eruvin 21a). Picus shows how in these texts, the scroll becomes a model of the Temple, the Torah, or even the world itself.

Jeremiah Coogan’s chapter stands out for its deep dive into the intricacies of late ancient tables, offering insights into the organization of knowledge, its processes, and the means of its transmission. His study illuminates the often-overlooked role of unacknowledged contributors, likely slaves, in interacting with these scholarly tools. Coogan begins by analyzing the Hexapla, revealing its complexity and the collaborative effort it demanded. He challenges the traditional assumption that Origen’s helpers were disciples, suggesting instead, basing his argument on references from Eusebius, Jerome, and Epiphanius, that slaves may have been involved in the project. While he posits the involvement of enslaved copyists, Coogan also prompts us to reconsider the nature of their contribution and whether it constitutes collaboration in the true sense of the word. Coogan then examines Eusebius’ Chronological Tables, portraying them as a “textual machine” that stands as a finished work in contrast to the preparatory nature of the Hexapla. He highlights the groundbreaking nature of the Gospel canons as the inaugural system of cross-references, an area in which Coogan has established expertise through his first monograph.[3] In the final section, Coogan draws parallels between the tabular methodologies employed in the Talmud and the works of Origen and Eusebius, bridging these distinct traditions. Through his analysis, Coogan not only contributes to our understanding of ancient scholarly practices but also emphasizes the potential collaborative dimensions and the critical roles played by those traditionally marginalized in historical narratives.

Elizabeth Mattingly Conner investigates the presence of scientific discourse in late ancient letter writing, with a focus on the epistles of Isidore of Pelusium (375–435/40 CE). Conner unveils a contrasting image of Isidore, who, despite his portrayal as an anti-intellectual ascetic monk detached from urban sophistications, demonstrates considerable scholarly breadth. Isidore legitimates his biblical interpretations by weaving together Christian cosmology with the esteemed traditions of Greek science and philosophy, alongside references to tragic poetry. Moreover, Conner highlights Isidore’s nuanced approach to engaging with the scientific texts of polytheistic authors. While he criticizes their polytheistic expressions, he concurrently softens this critique by aligning certain Hellenic thinkers with Christian perspectives. This dual strategy underscores the enduring influence of Greek intellectual legacies, such as those of Galen and Plato, on Isidore and his contemporaries, illustrating the complex interplay between Christian and Hellenic thought in late antiquity. Conner’s analysis situates Isidore’s discussions on scientific and philosophical matters within the wider monastic intellectual milieu of the Greek East, particularly among communities like those following Peter the Iberian, who were known for their anti-Chalcedonian stance.

Rebecca Stephens Falcasantos’ contribution illustrates the dynamic process of historical knowledge construction, from the historian’s initial compilation of sources to the subsequent manuscript transmission and interpretation, revealing the layered and complex nature of historical narratives. She traces how the church historian Socrates of Constantinople (c. 380 – after 439) navigates allegations from Athanasius against his opponents, thereby contributing to the entrenched dichotomy between heresy and orthodoxy. Her analysis journeys from the original textual sources utilized by Socrates to his own historical writings, and finally to how these writings are preserved and interpreted in the earliest manuscript of his work housed in the Biblioteca Medicea Laurenziana (Plut. 70.7). Here, Falcasantos uncovers how the manuscript’s paratextual elements—such as annotations and marginalia—serve to reconfigure the narrative by highlighting certain aspects (e.g. Eusebius of Nicomedia’s death, cf. p. 131) while diminishing others (e.g., Hist.eccl. 2.11, p. 131), thus actively shaping the reader’s perception of the historical narrative.

Nicola Reggiani analyses the methodologies employed in antiquity for the creation and dissemination of medical knowledge through written works. Looking at medical papyri, he seeks to uncover how ancient physicians utilized various graphical layout and textual strategies to develop, expand, and refine their continually evolving body of knowledge. He focuses on two sets of texts: the prescriptions and the collections of recipes (the so-called ‘receptaria,’) and the questionnaires or question-and-answer catechisms, which are manuals providing theoretical definitions or practical descriptions in the format of questions and answers. By weaving together theoretical insights and practical application, Reggiani illustrates the crucial role that marginal variants, corrections above the line, marginalia, annotations on textual structure, markers of noteworthy sections, and personal contributions play in the conveyance of medical wisdom. This exploration underscores the significance of the physical text’s materiality in the preservation and sharing of medical understanding.

Courtney A. Roby handles an even more scientific subject , the construction of mathematical knowledge in late antiquity. Specifically, she analyzes problems in practical mathematics compiled from the newly published P. Math. (Bagnall/Jones 2019), a 4th-century mathematical papyrus likely from Oxyrhynchus, and the Stereometrica associated with Hero of Alexandria. Shifting focus to the enlightening role of errors, rather than successful outcomes, she reveals the thought processes leading to these errors. They suggest that the papyrus’ creator possessed basic mathematical capabilities, such as measurement conversions and simple arithmetic, but ventured into more complex challenges.

Monika Amsler delves into the nuanced composition of numerical maxims within the Babylonian Talmud, positing these elements as integral to a complex process of knowledge construction. Challenging the conventional classification of these maxims as mere extensions of biblical numerical sayings, Amsler suggests they belong to a wider, established genre that enjoyed significant popularity, designed for their ease of quotation and potential to go “viral” (p.205). Her investigation reimagines the Talmud not just as a religious text but as a dynamic forum for intellectual exchange, proposing that these maxims served multifaceted roles beyond mnemonics, including as tools in intellectual games and discussions reflective of the broader sympotic culture of late antiquity. By drawing parallels with other intellectual practices of the time, she reveals a rich tapestry of intellectual life that extends beyond the confines of urban academies.

Lilian Larsen challenges stereotypes about Eastern monasticism as an anti-intellectual movement, calling for a critical reexamination of the foundations upon which current scholarly understandings are built, especially Henri Marrou’s portrayal of Eastern monks as anti-intellectuals in contrast to their literary and scholarly Western counterparts. Larsen underscores the significance of education and literacy within Eastern monastic communities by referencing the works of prominent figures such as Basil of Caesarea, Jerome, John Chrysostom, and Pachomius. She highlights the foundational role of basic literacy in the learning processes within these communities through the use of artifacts and ostraca. In concluding, Larsen reflects on the persistent impact of Marrou, observing that even attempts to deconstruct his interpretations perpetuate his influence.

Robert Edwards focuses on the so-called Antiochene school. Contrary to many studies which have reduced “Antiochene exegesis” to an intellectual method devoid of historical context, he revisits the school as an institutional place where knowledge could be created and transmitted.[4] The first part investigates Diodore’s Grammar School in relation to his exegesis (which he succinctly phrases as “the commentaries are Grammar,” p.269). In the next section, the author attempts a reconstruction of the school as an institution. While this is admittedly speculative, it aims at anchoring the production of exegesis in its historical context. The pedagogical, church-related, institutional context outlined here is considered the most plausible. While this reader finds this attempt commendable, she would nevertheless call for caution about such reconstruction. As Dillon has noted about the Neoplatonists, late ancient schools were hardly as large or structured as we often imagine.[5] In his conclusions, Edwards concludes with the important suggestion that even though we possess only the grammatical commentaries, higher interpretation was an integral part of the Antiochene tradition.

The merit of this volume lies in its collection of diverse domains of late ancient knowledge (the medical, the theological, the historical, the mathematical etc.) often explored in isolation and the light it sheds on understudied dimensions of knowledge (e.g. its playful character, as in Amsler’s paper). It offers insights not only on texts and artifacts, but also on modern scholarship. The collection’s eclectic character reflects and celebrates the miscellaneous character of late antique textuality and art, echoing the very essence of the era it seeks to illuminate. The only regret of this reader is the absence of the field of law, which could be viewed as a missed opportunity to bring to light often-invisible legal literature. Legal texts from late antiquity are not only crucial for our understanding of Roman society but also significantly enrich our grasp of knowledge construction, textual aesthetics, and organizational principles of the era. Many legal compilations such as the Codex Theodosianus or Justinianus, for instance, provide invaluable material showcasing the same compilatory structure and logic as many late ancient works, such as the Talmud Bavli. A study of how such works allowed for easier access to legal precedents and principles, facilitating their application and teaching, could have been a great addition to the volume.

The volume is equipped with a user-friendly index locorum and a general index, enhancing its navigability. In fine, it excels in providing insightful synthesis on the knowledge production of late antiquity and in offering a collection of specialized studies that delve into a variety of niche topics.


Authors and Titles

Introduction: Knowledge Construction in Late Antiquity, Monika Amsler

Better Left Unread: Rabbinic Interpretations of Prophetic Scrolls, Daniel Picus

Tabular Thinking in Late Ancient Palestine: Instrumentality, Work, and the Construction of Knowledge, Jeremiah Coogan

Leading Sources of Knowledge at the Monastery: Isidore of Pelusium, Elizabeth Mattingly Conner

Fabricating Monstrosity: Archival Manipulation and the Production of Orthodoxy in Socrates of Constantinople’s Ecclesiastical History, Rebecca Stephens Falcasantos

Knowledge Construction in Progress: From Paratext to Marginal Annotations in the Greek Medical Papyri, Nicola Reggiani

Learning from Mistakes: Constructing Knowledge in Late Antique Mathematical Texts, Courtney A. Roby

The “Poetic Itch” and Numerical Maxims in the Talmud – An Inquiry into Factors of Knowledge Construction, Monika Amsler

Re-scaffolding a ‘Missing Chapter’, Lillian I. Larsen

Grammar in the School of Diodore of Tarsus: An Institutional Context for the Transfer of Exegetical Knowledge, Robert Edwards



[1] Amsler, M. The Babylonian Talmud and Late Antique Book Culture. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2023.

[2] Riggsby, A. Mosaics of Knowledge: Representing Information in the Roman World. Oxford University Press, 2019; Crawford, Matthew R. The Eusebian Canon Tables: Ordering Textual Knowledge in Late Antiquity. Oxford; New York: Oxford University Press, 2019; Coogan, J. Eusebius the evangelist: rewriting the fourfold gospel in late antiquity. New York: Oxford University Press, 2022; Letteney, M. The Christianization of Knowledge in Late Antiquity: Intellectual and Material Transformations. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2023.

[3] See n.1.

[4] E.g., Schäublin, C., Untersuchungen zu Methode und Herkunft der antiochenischen Exegese, Cologne, 1974.

[5] Dillon, John, ‘Philosophy as a Profession in Late Antiquity’, in Simon Swain, and Mark Edwards (eds), Approaching Late Antiquity: The Transformation from Early to Late Empire, Oxford University Press, 2006, pp. 401-418.