Tuesday, December 15, 2009

The Making of the Hebrew Bible

I’m going to quote some passages from a book review. This is one of those situations where the book review is more important than the book under review. Richard Hess is a conservative OT scholar with a strong background in Biblical archeology, and he brings his expertise to bear in his review. And his comments furnish evidence for the OT canon.

[Quote] This all begs the larger question of what constitutes a book. For this van der Toorn uses the definition of von Wilamowitz that it is “a text published by its author through the medium of an organized book trade for the benefit of an expectant public” (p. 25). As van der Toorn notes this would exclude the existence of virtually any book in the ancient Near East. However, it would also exclude the formation of a book by newspaper installments such as the books of Charles Dickens and other well known Victorian and later authors of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. They did not publish “a text” by itself but a group of smaller texts, one after the other, similar to the construction suggested by van der Toorn for the biblical books. The definition would also exclude various e-books and other media that are created and “published” on the internet without the use of any sort of “organized book trade.” This is especially true of many written items that are as long as various biblical books in terms of number of words but are posted on blogs and other devices and thereby made available for free to anyone who wishes to access them (such as this review). Rather than reducing or limiting the number of written items, these contexts of “publication” have increased the number of volumes. They call into question what amounts to an overly simplistic definition of the production of books in the modern era and therefore to an overly restrictive definition regarding the production of books in the ancient world.

In discussing authorship, van der Toorn identifies compositions of the ancient world as largely anonymous and limited to occasional colophons that included the name of the scribe who copied the text and perhaps the name of the author. However, his assertion overlooks a wide range of genres that preserved the names of their authors in the opening lines of the work. Letters, prophecies, treaties, and other documents often named their authors at the beginning of the document. These were not pseudepigraphic compositions nor were they honorific authors, as van der Toorn identifies some texts. In fact, the composition of Deuteronomy that he describes as peseudepigraphic has been understood by some scholars as a treaty/covenant document. It, like other ancient Near Eastern treaties, identifies its author at the beginning of the document. This same confusion emerges when van der Toorn discusses the Mesopotamian Catalogue of Texts and Authors. This catalogue describes literary works other than those genres mentioned above. For example, it does not list prophecies. So it is not clear that van der Toorn compares similar items when he relates this catalogue to the Talmudic tradition of ascribing the compilation of Isaiah to Hezekiah. However, a wisdom text such as Proverbs is properly compared to the catalogue. Its “authorship” may indeed refer to editorial arrangement and activity as appears to be described in Proverbs 25:1.

Van der Toorn provides a helpful review of the scribal training and abilities in Mesopotamia and in Egypt. In both cases the scribes in the religious traditions achieved a middle class status somewhere between the menial workers and those of the religious elite. In the Mesopotamian tradition, the more advanced scribes rose beyond the levels of rote memory and copying to discussion and debate concerning the classical works of their profession. When he considers Israel, van der Toorn advances the text of Jeremiah 8:8-9 which is repeated many times in his book. He understands this text as implying that Jeremiah’s prophetic word stood in opposition with the Torah as created by the scribes of Jeremiah’s day. Thus Jeremiah argues that the Torah is a deceitful product of scribes. This may be one interpretation of this text. However, modern translations understand Jeremiah 8:8-9 as an indictment for falsely dealing with the Torah, not a charge of inventing a false torah. The problem is one of interpretation rather than van der Toorn’s concern with production.

One need not follow van der Toorn’s assumptions about the lack of authenticity for the unprovenanced Baruch seal in order to agree that many scribes were associated with the temple. Indeed, his observation of an absence of separation between the secular and the sacred, or more specifically between the palace and the temple, lead one to accept in large measure a sacred provenance for much of the scribal activity surrounding the production and preservation of the Bible. The comparison with Ilimalku of Ugarit is apt: He appears to have been a scribe connected with both the temple and the palace. The deposit of the description of kingship in the Shiloh sanctuary (1 Samuel 10:25), the holy background to the Torah (Hosea 8:12), and the connection of the book of Torah with the temple (2 Kings 22-23) all affirm the scribal connection with the temple. The Levites in Chronicles are involved in Torah instructions as well as in civil and other temple duties. Further, van der Toorn points to the sages as one group of explicitly religious professionals in Jeremiah 18:18. Deuteronomy 17:18-19 demonstrates how the king is to copy the Torah from a scroll “before the Levitical priests.”

It is in this context that van der Toorn makes an important observation concerning literacy (p. 95): “The epigraphic evidence suggests that training in rudimentary scribal skills was available throughout Palestine, but the formation of scribes who were ‘expert and wise’ required a program of study provided only in the temple school.” Indeed, this was my point in the note, "Writing about Writing: Abecedaries and Evidence for Literacy in Ancient Israel," Vetus Testamentum 56 (2006) 342-46. Functional literacy was available widely in Israel. Whether or not the abecedaries from Palestine are to be understood as samples for engravers and potters is another matter. If the Izbet Sartah inscription is an abecedary, it seems difficult to explain the repetition of letter forms on the text as a sample text for an engraver. It seems more natural to understand here some “scribal scriblings,” however elementary the writer may have been. Modeling the Mesopotamian curriculum, van der Toorn suggests that Hebrew scribal training was divided into two parts. In the first phase, the twenty-two Hebrew letters were “easily mastered” and skill was then developed in the speed and clarity of style involved in the formation of each letter. Acrostics such as Psalms 25 and 119 formed the counterpart to the cuneiform acrostic, the Babylonian Theodicy. These were used as copy texts to instruct beginning students. Van der Toorn creatively identifies possible lists in the biblical texts that could have been used for the development of related vocabulary (p. 99): animals in Leviticus 11 and Deuteronomy 14, places in Numbers 33, jewelry in Isaiah 3:18-23, and “revealed things” in the later apocalyptic literature.

Reasonably it may be argued, as van der Toorn does, that the prologue of Ben Sira mentions the use of “the books of the fathers” as a curriculum for scribal instruction. The texts of Deuteronomy, Psalms, and Isaiah dominate at Qumran and in the New Testament’s use of the Old. Therefore, these are reasonably the ones most likely forming the essential books of the scribal curriculum in the Second Temple Period. Scribes would have committed them to memory. Advanced classes would have discussed these texts.

Such a conclusion controverts the view of Deuteronomy as a vassal treaty form where, as least in the second millennium B.C., the historical prologue was common. Thus two beginnings to the work would have been expected. This is clear in the treaty between Suppiluliuma and Niqmaddu II of Ugarit which begins “Thus says his majesty Suppiluliuma,” and then, after the historical prologue begins again, “Now Suppiluliuma, Great King, King of Hatti, has made the following treaty with Niqmaddu, king of the land of Ugarit, saying” (G. Beckman, Hittite Diplomatic Texts [SBLWAWS 7; Atlanta: Scholars Press, 1996], pp. 30-31). This calls into question the view that the only explanation for all such multiple introductions or colophon summaries must be the result of later scribal additions. Clearly such was not the case with the Hittite vassal treaties and documents that may have been modeled on them.

Could the prophets themselves have applied earlier oracles and phrases in this manner? We know, for example, that the Neo-Assyrian oracles alluded to Mesopotamian literary traditions (see Charles Halton, “Allusions to the Stream of Tradition in Neo-Assyrian Oracles,” Ancient Near Eastern Studies 46 [2009]: 50-61). Since van der Toorn would suggest that these oracles represent texts closer to the original oral pronouncements, as opposed to the larger collections of oracles in a prophetic scroll such as Jeremiah, then this sort of relecture appears to go back as far as we are able to reach to the original oracles. It would therefore not appear to provide prima facie evidence for scribal editing and reworking. For van der Toorn the sermons of Jeremiah represent Deuteronomistic works composed by scribes in that tradition. But it is not impossible that they were composed by the prophet Jeremiah. The demonstration that phrases and ideas were borrowed and reused in prophetic books does not preclude that these were borrowed and reused by the prophets themselves.

Van der Toorn finds evidence for a temple library early in Jerusalem. He cites the texts of 1 Samuel 10:25; 2 Kings 22; and 2 Maccabees 2:13-15. He concludes that around 450 B.C. Ezra identified the Torah as the beginning of the canon (p. 248). Two centuries later the Prophets, Psalms, and Proverbs were added. By the time of Josephus, he and others identified most of the Writings as part of the Prophets. Thus Josephus and most of the New Testament describe the canon as consisting of the Law and the Prophets. The Persian authorities gave Ezra the power to codify the Torah and to enforce it on the community around Jerusalem. Van der Toorn concludes that c. 250 B.C. Malachi was added as an anonymous work to bring the scroll of the Minor Prophets to an ideal number of twelve and to close the canon. He feels that this is signaled when Malachi 3:22 (English 4:4) echoes Joshua 1:7 and forms an inclusio for the entire work of the Prophets; with its emphasis on following the Law of Moses. However, this echo is odd if it is intentional. Other than the general verb “to command,” not a single verbal phrase is repeated in the two verses. “Be strong and courageous” and “be careful to do everything” are key and repeated phrases in Joshua 1. However, they occur nowhere at the end of Malachi. There is no explicit inclusio here.

Van der Toorn’s work is an important contribution to scholarship. It brings an updated model of the development of the Old Testament as a Scriptural canon and bases this model on reasonable and detailed comparative analysis of the better known world of Mesopotamian scribal schools and religious (and other) texts. Van der Toorn joins with other scholars who reject a very late canon formation, posited by some as after the Roman destruction of the Second Temple. The use of comparative evidence from ancient Mesopotamian texts and scribal culture provides a much needed corrective to other approaches. Indeed, some of the concerns expressed in this review come as a result of not going far enough with the comparative evidence.


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