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.

‘It is hardly surprising that early Christianity, with its roots among the common people, should show some distance from writing,’ Schniedewind remarks. This is a bit peculiar, since in early Christianity a lot of Gospels and Letters were written. But he adds: ‘In its attitude toward writing, early Christianity is a close sibling of Pharisaic Judaism.’ Early Protestantism is a case in the other direction, however. The polemics of the Reformation focused strongly on the interpretation of the Bible. Luther subverted the power of Rome by asserting the right of the individual believer to have direct access to the written Word of God, and to interpret the Book without priestly intervention. His adversaries in Rome maintained that the true interpretation of the Book has to be revealed through the authority of tradition. In this instance, the Bible as a book was an effective instrument of change.

The Gospel of John puzzles Schniedewind, as it does most of us. ‘John’s own written work,’ he writes, ‘began by defining the true Word as a person, not a text: “In the beginning was the Word (John 1.1) . . . And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth” (John 1.14).’ Schniedewind sees ‘the Word’ twice objectified: in Judah by ‘textualisation’, in John by personification: ‘In this context, the Book of John’s assertion that the “Word of God” is a person and not a text seems most radical.’ But it was rash to have conflated the uses of ‘the Word’ in two different discourses. I find no sense in inserting John’s statements on the Greek concept of logos into the context of second and third-century BCE Hebrew dialogues about the written ‘Word of God’. The fuller text of John shows that ‘the Word’ is an active principle: ‘In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God; all things were made through him, and without him was not anything made that was made.’

John, here, is close to Greek thought, which in reference to God used Logos to signify God in action. His ineffable being was seen to be articulated in the continuous act of creation, an idea closely matched in Egyptian theology. Many passages in the Greco-Egyptian magical papyri conceive of God as a supreme being who is manifested in the world. Creation was not perceived as a one-off act. God did not make the visible world as something apart from himself. Producing a cosmos was not like producing a text independent of the spoken word on which it was based, or like the act of a potter making a pot, or like Descartes’s divine clockmaker. The metaphor of making something is wrong for creation. In that Greek discourse, God was the continuous organising principle of the cosmos.

The other strong theme through the book is the question of dating the Bible, a very controversial and exceedingly technical matter, continually being overtaken by new research. It is a shock to learn that Genesis and Numbers have copied whole passages from Joshua and Judges. (For complicated reasons, we know that it is definitely not the other way round.) Previous grounds for dating are completely subverted. Now we should not be comparing whole books, but tracing strands of repetition in them.

The ground prepared in this book for considering the effects of literacy should illuminate some dating issues. In one way Schniedewind wants to avoid the topic; in another he wants to engage with it, because he is committed to the idea of an early date for the redaction of the Pentateuch. He admits he is confronted by a growing band of scholars committed to a later date. It is only a matter of two centuries: he proposes the seventh century BCE as the date for the introduction of the written Torah, while the fifth century BCE is the widely preferred later date.

The ‘early date’ conforms to the account of the preconditions for general literacy: a sufficiently dense population, sufficiently stable social and political conditions, a state system of government, a court for focus, a temple for learning. These fit the eighth-century BCE reign of Hezekiah and of his son Josiah, who reigned in the seventh century. The monarchical period ends in 586, with the fall of Jerusalem to the Babylonian conquerors. All the learned and noble families are exiled to Babylon. Here is the beginning of the written Bible, according to the strongly endorsed theory: the writing of the Pentateuch is ascribed to the exilic and post-exilic period.

Support for the early dating is found in 2 Kings, where a scroll is discovered in the temple and brought to the young king, Josiah. He reads it with a great sense of divine revelation, and determines to make Judah obey the law of God. This scroll is thought to be the book of Deuteronomy, mainly because Josiah proceeds to make the very reforms commanded in that book: the centralisation of the cult in the Temple in Jerusalem, and attacks on idolatry. There are other arguments. One proposed by Schniedewind is that most of the Pentateuch must be pre-exilic because of the great interest it shows in the Northern Kingdom of Israel. This large region (later known as Samaria), originally inhabited by the sons of Joseph, became a powerful and prosperous province of the Persian Empire. Schniedewind asks why biblical editors in the post-exilic period should have written so much about the unity of the 12 tribes of Israel when they are no longer interested in trying to integrate Samaria with Judah; after it had been attacked by Assyria in 722 and destroyed in 701, Samaria was no longer a threat to Judah, and therefore, as Schniedewind argues, of no further interest to post-exilic writers.

I venture an answer to this case for early dating. The priestly editors would not forget Samaria while in exile and after, because they had long been intermarrying with Samaritans, especially the royal court and the priestly families. They could well have written nostalgically about their wish to revive the integrated Kingdom of Solomon, since many of them had in-laws and cousins and aunts living in the territory of the Northern Kingdom.

The strongest argument in favour of the early date is based on language. There is linguistic and textual evidence that the language changed in these two momentous centuries. The grammar, syntax and vocabulary of the Pentateuch are not the same as in late Hebrew language. There are words current in the writing of Ezekiel, a priest in the exile, which are not found in the Pentateuch, and turns of phrase and vocabulary in the Pentateuch which are not found In Ezekiel. This is a stumbling-block for the late-daters.

The most powerful defence of early dating is Avi Hurvitz’s 1982 study of the evolution of biblical Hebrew. He found the exilic period to be a decisive turning point: the Pentateuch was written in classical Hebrew; late biblical Hebrew emerged around 500 BCE, about the time of the Book of Chronicles. His analysis, so formal and comprehensive, so carefully objective, so strictly focused only on language, is impeccable. His conclusion is that the priestly source (P, responsible for the largest part of the Pentateuch), ‘definitely belongs to the pre-exilic period’, and ‘there is no conclusive case for denying P’s ancient date.’ ‘So far no one has produced evidence of the existence of late elements in the Pentateuch.’ In these uncompromising terms Hurvitz dismissed the retort that the priestly editors could have deliberately archaised their style, so as to give it more authority.

I am troubled by the thought that the early dating puts the editing of the Pentateuch into the monarchical period. The political systems of ancient Canaan and Egypt were monarchical, and the kingly role was honoured in the central rituals. Clearly, kings are incompatible with the story of Moses: he subdues the kings of Midian. Yet it is amazing that while giving doctrines and instructions for the cult in the early period, the Hebrew Bible could have completely omitted kings.

Anthropology could mount a different kind of challenge to the linguistic argument for early editing. Hurvitz’s procedure is to take one author in one period and compare the language minutely with one other author in another period. His argument depends on the emergence of significant lexical and syntactical differences between any two generations. Language changes continuously; the young are the innovators, the old shudder at neologisms. The change goes at a different pace in different sections of the population. Some language lag has to be expected. Bits of vocabularies that were common in 17th-century England are still spoken daily in America, like ‘gotten’ for the past tense of ‘to get’. Similarly, French archaisms are heard in contemporary Canada.

Sporadic anachronisms hardly challenge Hurvitz’s argument. But what about language lag? The rate of change will be slower in isolated communities because they do not come under the influence of foreign languages. In a religious community the lag will be greater to the extent that the community is closed off, as many religious communities are. It will be even greater if the members of a closed religious community want to preserve the speaking style of the founders. Language is a sensitive indicator of loyalty to the community. By speaking Latin together, Jesuits honour the language of Christendom at the time of their founder, heightening their shared sense of identity.

Language lag in a literate society may be greater if access to contemporary literature is restricted. An elderly German nun who arrived as a refugee in the convent school where I was educated had no colloquial English; the only available reading matter was religious. She had to learn not to ask her neighbour at mealtimes, ‘Vouchsafe me the butter,’ or ‘I thirst! Water, I beseech thee.’

These reflections suggest a different statistical exercise in sociolinguistics. It should be possible to establish measures of language lag and the degree of variance between sectors of a given population. The important factors are demographic, age distribution and influx of new populations. For this exercise we would need to know much more than we do about the priestly editors, how much of a closed group they were, their attitude to the spoken word, their average age, and whether they had gone into exile or stayed behind. If the priestly editors had spent the years of exile in Judah it would be reasonable to expect that they had preserved an archaic style of speech, while Ezekiel, the favourite model for late Hebrew, had actually been in exile and had a much wider experience. I suggest that calculating average differences between classical Hebrew and late Hebrew over the whole population might not be a sound guide to the historical issue.

This volume shows how the two sides, pro-written Torah and pro-oral tradition, tend to divide according to existing political and social divisions. In most of the examples discussed, the pro-text movements were conservative, the pro-speech movements liberal. Once they start to slang each other, the difference between the written Word of God and the oral tradition begins to sound like the difference between matter and spirit. Among the contending parties the defenders of the written word are spurned as crass materialisers by their adversaries, while they castigate the latter for opening the doors to a doctrinal free-for-all in which material rather than spiritual interpretations prevail. Over time the Bible itself changes, from a straight record of God’s dealings with his people to a quasi-magical object. For the Jew to have unauthorised contact with the Torah is dangerous; for the Christian to swear a false oath on the same Book is dangerous.

At the founding of Christianity Paul wrote to the Corinthians: ‘The letter killeth but the spirit giveth life.’ Two millennia later, T.S. Eliot enters the debate in riposte: ‘Of course, Mr Shaw and Mr Wells are much occupied with religion and Ersatz-Religion. But they are concerned with the spirit not the letter. And the spirit killeth, but the letter giveth life.’