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Contextualizing Israel’s Sacred Writing

Contextualizing Israel’s Sacred Writing: Ancient Literacy, Orality, and Literary Production

edited by Brian B. Schmidt
  • Book Info
    Contextualizing Israel’s Sacred Writing
    Book Description:

    An essential resource exploring orality and literacy in the pre-Hellenistic southern Levant and the Hebrew Bible

    Situated historically between the invention of the alphabet, on the one hand, and the creation of ancient Israel's sacred writings, on the other, is the emergence of literary production in the ancient Levant. In this timely collection of essays by an international cadre of scholars, the dialectic between the oral and the written, the intersection of orality with literacy, and the advent of literary composition are each explored as a prelude to the emergence of biblical writing in ancient Israel. Contributors also examine a range of relevant topics including scripturalization, the compositional dimensions of orality and textuality as they engage biblical poetry, prophecy, and narrative along with their antecedents, and the ultimate autonomy of the written in early Israel. The contributors are James M. Bos, David M. Carr, André Lemaire, Robert D. Miller II, Nadav Na'aman, Raymond F. Person Jr., Frank H. Polak, Christopher A. Rollston, Seth L. Sanders, Joachim Schaper, Brian B. Schmidt, William M. Schniedewind, Elsie Stern, and Jessica Whisenant.


    Addresses questions of literacy and scribal activity in the Levant and NegevArticles examine memory, oral tradition, and text criticismDiscussion of the processes of scripturalization

    eISBN: 978-1-62837-119-2
    Subjects: Religion, History, Language & Literature

Table of Contents

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  1. Table of Contents
    (pp. v-vi)
    (pp. 1-10)
    Brian B. SCHMIDT

    From a contemporary western perspective, it is at the same time both obvious and profound that literacy in the ancient Near Eastern and Mediterranean theaters emerged in a predominantly oral world. The implications of that reality, however, have made only sporadic and gradual inroads into the modern study of early Israelite society, the Hebrew Bible and the relevance of orality and literacy for the actual historical composition of biblical literature. Nonetheless, a run of volumes in recent years resulting from conferences, colloquia and symposia, various edited and authored books and articles, along with a variety of publications in dictionaries and...

  3. 1. Epigraphic Indications of Literacy and Orality in Ancient Israelite Society

      (pp. 11-46)
      André LEMAIRE

      The proble m of literacy in the Levant at the beginning of the first millennium BCE has been much discussed during the last ten years, especially in connection with the dating of the earliest biblical texts. For instance, according to Israel Finkelstein, “Writing in Judah commenced in the late ninth century, but at that time was sporadic and did not include complex texts; scribal activity gained prominence only in the late eighth century and more so in the seventh century BCE. Therefore pre-late 8th century materials must have been transmitted orally.”¹ Before coming back to this point, it is useful,...

    • Literacy in the Negev in the Late Monarchical Period
      (pp. 47-70)
      Nadav NA’AMAN

      Modern biblical-historical research has focused extensively on the spread of literacy in the kingdom of Judah and the extent of literateness among the elite and inhabitants of the kingdom. Whereas scholars had once sought to derive some information about these matters from the biblical texts, today it is clear that intrabiblical references are of very limited value for investigating the diffusion and extent of literacy in the kingdom. The bulk of the data concerning the development of writing and the dissemination of literacy come from archaeological excavations conducted for over a century in what had been Judah’s territory. Such data...

    • Scribal Curriculum during the First Temple Period: Epigraphic Hebrew and Biblical Evidence
      (pp. 71-102)
      Christopher A. ROLLSTON

      “Scribal wisdom increases wisdom; whoever is free from toil can become wise” (Sir 38:24).¹ With that declaration, penned during the first quarter of the second century BCE, the Jerusalem scribe known as Ben Sira inaugurates his comparison of the life of a scribe to that of four different occupations. Because agriculture and pastoralism were such common occupations in much of the ancient world, Ben Sira singles them out first: The farmer does not have the luxury of acquiring wisdom because “his talk is about bulls,” and “his objective is to complete the fattening (of the cattle),” and “his attention is...

      (pp. 103-132)
      Brian B. SCHMIDT

      In the quest to articulate a history of the actual, material composition of those written works that we now refer to as the books of the Hebrew Bible, epigraphic investigators in search of comparable literary texts of length may surprisingly find themselves, and rather ironically I might add, in an advantageous position. This stands in spite of the overall relative dearth often lamented in the secondary literature commenting on Hebrew and West Semitic inscriptions from the Iron Age southern Levant.¹ Yet, as the veritable clock ticks on, researchers, in their pursuit to articulate that history and the various societal factors...

    • Let the Stones Speak! Document Production by Iron Age West Semitic Scribal Institutions and the Question of Biblical Sources
      (pp. 133-160)
      Jessica WHISENANT

      This study examines the epigraphic evidence for the varying levels of writing and literacy in Iron Age Judah (ca. 1200–586 BCE), seeking to analyze this data in light of Judah’s historical and geographical context as one of a constellation of small states that emerged in the Levant during the late Iron Age. The findings of this project have direct ramifications for the question ofifandwhenthe earliest versions of several texts now preserved in the Hebrew bible (HB) were composed in Iron Age Judah. At stake here is the common assumption, found in the work of many...

  4. 2. The Interface of Orality and Literacy in The Hebrew Bible

    • Orality, Textuality, and Memory: The State of Biblical Studies
      (pp. 161-174)
      David M. CARR

      About twenty one years ago, in November of 1991, the University of Michigan hosted a conference in Ann Arbor on “Palimpsest: Editorial Theory in the Humanities.”¹ The bulk of the papers focused on issues surrounding contemporary editing, and the paper on Hebrew Bible, by David Noel Freedman, discussed a series of text-critical problems in biblical texts. Nevertheless, one of the papers, a contribution on “Reconstructing the Classics” by James E. G. Zetzel (of Columbia University) touched on themes of text and memory that are the focus my discussion here. In this essay, Zetzel noted the varied aims and assumptions of...

    • The Performance of Oral Tradition in Ancient Israel
      (pp. 175-196)
      Robert D. MILLER II

      For the past half-century, much of the time that biblical scholars have worked with scholarship on oral tradition and folklore, they have drawn on the “Oral-formulaic Theory” or “Parry-Lord School” associated with the work of Milman Parry and his student Albert Lord.¹

      In the 1930s, Milman Parry sought to understand Homeric Greek poetry by studying modern South Slavic oral tradition. Parry’s key conclusion about this poetry, a conclusion that he then applied to the Homeric epics, was that its authors were illiterate, without knowledge of writing, and that they composed in a special, “formulaic” language.

      Albert Lord further elaborated on...

    • Text Criticism as a Lens for Understanding the Transmission of Ancient Texts in Their Oral Environments
      (pp. 197-216)
      Raymond F. PERSON Jr.

      InThe Deuteronomic History and the Book of Chronicles: Scribal Works in an Oral World, I combine the insights of the Parry-Lord approach to oral traditions with the text criticism of Samuel–Kings, in order to argue that the Deuteronomic History and the Book of Chronicles are both faithful representations of the same broader tradition, despite what from our modern perspectives appear to be significant theological differences. For this purpose, the most important insight of the Parry-Lord approach is multiformity as a characteristic of oral traditions—that is, oral bards think of their songs as “a flexible plan of themes,...

    • Oral Substratum, Language Usage, and Thematic Flow in the Abraham-Jacob Narrative
      (pp. 217-238)
      Frank H. POLAK

      In biblical scholarship the relationship between the written text and the oral tradition has always been highly problematic. But the modern study of such subjects as narrative structure, oral literature, and language usage opens up new perspectives. In this study I want to defend the view that the tales of the patriarchs preserve an underlying oral-epic substratum that formed the base structure for the narrative in its present, written form. This vista allows us to overcome the tension between historical growth and narrative unity. What is traditional, and ultimately based on oral narrative/poetry, is the underlying unity of the overarching...

    • Royal Letters and Torah Scrolls: The Place of Ezra-Nehemiah in Scholarly Narratives of Scripturalization
      (pp. 239-262)
      Elsie STERN

      Since the late nineteenth century, if not before, scripturalization has been a key theme in scholarly narratives regarding the development of Judaism. Since Wellhausen’sProlegomena to the History of Ancient Israel, the emergence of torah as scripture is understood to be one of the defining turning points in the journey from ancient Israelite religion to classical Judaism. While the exact characterizations of scripture vary from scholar to scholar, the following aspects are most relevant to the subject of this volume:¹

      A shift from a predominantly oral modality to a primarily written one. In prescriptural economies, most culturally significant material is...

  5. 3. Aspects of Orality and Literacy in Ancient Israel in Comparative Perspective

    • The “Literarization” of the Biblical Prophecy of Doom
      (pp. 263-280)
      James M. BOS

      Prior to the very late twentieth century, very few scholars researching the composition of the various biblical books took into account the significant factor of literacy in the Iron Age Levant.¹ This was due in part to the rather widespread notion that alphabetic literacy was easily attained, and thus the number of men (and perhaps women) reading and writing in ancient Israel and Judah would have been (or could have been) relatively high, even early in the Iron Age. Scholars like Millard and Lemaire also pointed to the distribution and variety of epigraphic remains in the ancient southern Levant, as...

    • What if There Aren’t Any Empirical Models for Pentateuchal Criticism?
      (pp. 281-304)
      Seth L. SANDERS

      This paper questions a key assumption of biblical criticism by asking whether empirical models can actually explain what is different about the Pentateuch. That is, are there known pre-Hellenistic Near Eastern examples of the Pentateuch’s most prominent formal literary feature, the interweaving of parallel variants of narratives? If not—and I will argue that there are not—was the Pentateuch’s creation a radical break from both Israelite and Near Eastern text-building? Using ancient Near Eastern literary evidence historically, I will argue from the case of the Primeval History that the Pentateuch’s lack of parallels actually gives us a crucial clue...

    • Scripturalization in Ancient Judah
      (pp. 305-322)
      William M. SCHNIEDEWIND

      How did ancient scrolls become scripture? It is not obvious that ancient Israel should have produced a large corpus of literary traditions that would be collected into a book, but it is even less obvious that these texts should ever come to be regarded as having religious authority for the masses, that is, that they should become scripture. For example, the Epic of Gilgamesh never became scripture in Mesopotamia, the Ba’al Epic was not scripture for the Canaanites, the Odyssey never became scripture for the Greeks. Given this, it is even more curious that a Judean literary corpus would gain...

    • Hebrew Culture at the “Interface between the Written and the Oral”
      (pp. 323-340)
      Joachim SCHAPER

      It is impossible to trace the prehistory of the cultures of Israel and Judah¹ back to the point when they first made contact with the technology of writing.² While it is possible to trace palaeo-Hebrew writing back to its predecessor scripts and to establish a genealogy of Northwest Semitic writing systems,³ there are no sources that might help us to reconstruct the history of the earliest times of Israelite (prestatehood) society and culture.⁴ Only from the late tenth century BCE onwards does the veil start to lift a little. The tenth century witnessed the beginnings of the Davidic “monarchy,” a...

  6. Subject Index
    (pp. 341-367)
  7. Ancient Sources Index
    (pp. 368-374)