Committee Speak

Robert Alter

  • Scribal Culture and the Making of the Hebrew Bible by Karel van der Toorn
    Harvard, 401 pp, £22.95, March 2007, ISBN 978 0 674 02437 3

This scrupulous study by the Dutch scholar Karel van der Toorn of how the Hebrew Bible was written and then evolved over time is in most respects finely instructive. Some of what Toorn has to say involves concepts long familiar to Bible scholars, though even in this regard he provides many fresh insights. Nearly all the book’s argument, moreover, offers a strong corrective to popular misconceptions about the Bible.

Scribal Culture investigates the identity of the biblical scribes, the nature of the institutional framework within which they worked, and their methods of composition and editing. Abundant comparative material is invoked from the scribal cultures of Mesopotamia and Egypt, about both of which Toorn exhibits authoritative knowledge. He offers careful accounts of the nature of the book in the ancient Near East, the relation between writing – as he plausibly argues, the possession of a small elite – and oral tradition, the emergence of the concept of revelation and the gradual formation of a canon, and the pervasive changes in the status and nature of literature that took place in the Hellenistic era.

The core of Toorn’s argument is that the ideas of both book and author that are often unreflectively imposed on the Bible are modern notions that seriously misrepresent the facts of the ancient literature. The parchment or papyrus scroll, a millennium before the invention of the codex, was by no means an object, like a book, that had clear boundaries. The professional scribes, in all likelihood working in the temple precincts, who were charged with the maintenance of the scrolls exercised considerable licence, one may infer, in expanding or modifying their contents, incorporating elements of oral lore and inventing new materials. As Toorn trenchantly puts it, ‘the books of the Bible were not designed to be read as unities. They rather compare to archives. A biblical book is often like a box containing heterogeneous materials brought together on the assumption of common authorship, subject-matter or chronology.’ The books of the Bible thus closely resemble the Gilgamesh Epic (a Mesopotamian text that was, however, written on tablets rather than scrolls), which gathered material over the centuries in a process of sedimentation. Toorn proposes, though, that in some instances – most notably, in the weaving together of three independent literary sources in the first four books of the Pentateuch – the Hebrew scribes, ‘by writing a work that integrated documents with different ideas and perspectives’, ‘were creating a national written heritage that transcended earlier divisions’.

As a case-study of this process of growth through accretion, Toorn offers an illuminating analysis of the evolution of Deuteronomy. He plausibly argues that, beginning with its initial stage around 621 BCE, it existed for a considerable time in a single master copy, and he calculates that the actual scroll would have lasted through frequent readings for about forty years (a convenient enough biblical formulaic number) before a new copy had to be made. He then proposes that at each recopying, over a period of nearly two hundred years, significant new materials were introduced to pitch the text to the bias of changing historical circumstances. Thus the ‘first edition’ (his term) of Deuteronomy, during the reign of King Josiah in the late seventh century BCE, was the Covenant edition, identifying itself frequently as sefer habrit, the Book of the Covenant, and stressing ancient Near Eastern treaty terms for Israel’s relationship with its God. The next recension was the Torah edition, redacted shortly after the destruction of Judea in 586 BCE. Here Torah, or ‘teaching’, is the central emphasis, and the book is often called sefer hatorah, the Book of Teaching. The third edition is designated by Toorn as the History edition; it focuses on the figure of Moses as part of a large historiographical project, cast in theological terms, and is directly related to the editorial enterprise of putting together the national historical narrative that was undertaken in the Babylonian exile. The last stratum is what Toorn calls the Wisdom edition, probably completed after the return from exile. This version, which stresses intellectual understanding as the national vocation of Israel, lays the groundwork for the text-centred Jewish culture that would become dominant in late antiquity.

In all this scribal activity, what happens to the author? Toorn unabashedly states in his second chapter that ‘the notion of the author as an autonomous agent of creative genius is a historical construct. It is not a fixed truth but was born in early modern times and may not make it through postmodernity.’ Given the invocation here of postmodernity, it is not entirely surprising that at one point Toorn cites Barthes on the death of the author: the author, that is, seen as an agent of illusory autonomy who is in fact a junction of cultural codes and conventions. All this jibes oddly with the idea of a scribal culture in which the writer scarcely has individual identity and in which successive teams of trained literary craftsmen manipulate varying complexes of formulaic and traditional materials.

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