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Institute of Asian and Oriental Studies URPP Asia and Europe (2006–2017)

Laws of Heaven - Laws of Nature: The Legal Interpretation of Cosmic Phenomena in the Ancient World

International Symposium, September 5-6, 2011


URPP Asia and Europe in cooperation with the Swiss Society for Ancient Near Eastern Studies


Konrad Schmid (URPP Asia and Europe) and Christian Uehlinger (URPP Asia and Europe)


There is a widespread conviction in historical research that the notion of “laws of nature” is of Greek origin. However, this assumption can be falsified empirically by looking into the traditions of the ancient Near East and the Bible: The use of legal language to describe astronomical phenomena has an important prehistory in Mesopotamian astronomy. Although no explicit and exact Akkadian or Hebrew counterpart to the term “laws of nature” can be found, the notion of a legal metaphor for cosmic phenomena is clearly present. Perhaps the most striking find is the use of identical terms in the ancient Near Eastern formulation of most omina on the one hand and legal regulations in law books on the other. As a matter of fact, there are even some texts in ancient Near Eastern literature that explicitly present the legal arrangement of the cosmos, notably the heavenly order. Mesopotamian astronomy and cosmology were certainly known and influential in ancient Israel and Judah, especially after the Babylonian Exile – where the deported Judahite priestly intelligentsia came into contact with ancient Mesopotamian science. The symposium will strive to elucidate the various legal interpretations of cosmic phenomena in the ancient world and their subsequent intellectual history. Participants include scholars from such disciplines as Assyriology, Hebrew Bible, Classics, History of Religions, Egyptology, and Physics from the US, Europe, and Israel.


  • Matthias Albani (Moritzburg)
  • Jeffrey Cooley (Boston)
  • Jörg Hüfner (Heidelberg)
  • Wayne Horowitz (Jerusalem)
  • Francesca Rochberg (Berkeley)
  • Stefan Maul (Heidelberg)
  • Franziska Naether (Leipzig)
  • Konrad Schmid (Zürich)
  • Christoph Uehlinger (Zürich)
  • Christian Wildberg (Princeton)
  • David P. Wright (Brandeis)

The symposium will be open to the public.

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