I thirst! Water, I beseech thee

Mary Douglas

  • How the Bible Became a Book: The Textualisation of Ancient Israel by William Schniedewind
    Cambridge, 257 pp, £25.00, May 2005, ISBN 0 521 82946 1

The title puts it fairly. Sacred books don’t spring out of thin air; there was a Bible before ever its stories and laws were fixed in writing. How the Bible Became a Book starts with the history of writing and its impact on Judaism, but as it goes along, fascinating comparisons with other histories of ‘textualisation’ crop up, together with a wide range of similar disputes about the sources of religious authority. Is the holy Book the sole authority? Or are there specialists with strong claims to interpret it? What happens if they disagree?

Most non-literate societies (but not all) will have teachers assigned to give instruction in religious matters and they may (or may not) lead in cult performances. They will not necessarily be consecrated priests. There may also be prophets who rise up spontaneously, persons inspired to speak out to guide or to protest. Prophets may be aristocrats, or come from lowly families; even women may be spirit-possessed (sometimes especially women). Whatever has been the case in the period before literacy, once literacy arrives, everything changes. The young will be quicker to learn than the old, as we have seen in our own history of information technology. But in the early stages there may be nothing to stop the older generation of the non-literate upper classes from holding on to power by paying scribes and secretaries. In the following generation, though by then everyone knows the current technology of communication, the old patterns of social advantage may remain intact – or they may be radically transformed.

These processes provide the central theme of William Schniedewind’s book, in which he traces every mention of writing in the Bible, and carefully tracks the loyalties divided between the oral and the written Torah through the history of Judaism. He also notes those who support both commitments: deep respect for the written Bible, combined with reverence for an older oral tradition deemed to have survived the centuries intact.

For an anthropologist it is riveting material. In the 1950s Max Gluckman made an in-depth study of Barotse law and judicial institutions. The (non-literate) Barotse nation ruled a big empire spread along the banks of the Zambezi. They believed that their law was divine, given to them in the beginning of time, and eternally unchanged. Gluckman observed a paradox in that they believed they had preserved the original laws of their ancestors, even while making changes in their own day. Their confidence in the eternal law was partly due to the lack of any written record to challenge it. But it was also due to the intellectual sifting of judicial decisions from case to case through the centuries. Basic principles were distinguished, the aim was to keep them intact; the courts took a practical and open-minded interest in new applications.

How the Bible Became a Book shows that the adherents of the oral Torah were similarly flexible: they philosophised about their unwritten law, identified its basic principles, made changes while claiming to be changing nothing. In contrast, the devotees of the written Torah were traditional and conservative and angry against their opponents. The sectarians of Qumran, who were ardent in defence of the written Torah, were also meticulously traditional in their cultic practice; they denounced the looser and less punitive interpretations of the supporters of the oral Torah. Much later, in Jerusalem, the same pattern arose when the priestly elite of Sadducees rejected the oral Torah on which their adversaries, the Pharisees, based a gentler doctrine.

Strangely, in the Arab world at the present time, there is a similar pattern of alignment towards the Koran. The Sunnis, you might say ‘the orthodox’, closely follow the text of the Koran. The customs and practices of the Prophet are handed down in canonical traditions, formally collected and recorded. Literalist interpretation of the written word produces an austerely traditionalist cultic practice. The Shias, by contrast, have developed their religious thought more freely, and are more open to other systems of thought.

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