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.

The claim, however, that the author as autonomous agent is a construct of early modern times is surely an exaggeration. Virgil and, indeed, Sappho certainly thought of themselves as authors more or less in the sense we use the term today, and the Greek tragedians, composing their plays for competitions, were scarcely anonymous members of teams of scribes. Another highly competitive literary culture that set a premium on the achievement of the individual author was the Arabic and Hebrew poetry of medieval Spain; from time to time, a poet would even inscribe his signature in the poem by casting it as an acrostic of his name. Biblical writers, on the other hand, cloaked themselves in anonymity, a fact that Toorn properly invokes as evidence for his argument about a collective scribal culture. The ostensible exception, to which I shall return, is the prophets. But we may ask whether the condition of anonymity invariably means that there can be no individual author.

Karel van der Toorn is the perfect – and bracing – antithesis to Harold Bloom. Bloom, whose point of departure as a critic is English Romantic poetry and in particular Blake’s relationship to Milton, has based much of his career on the conception of the writer as a bold individual genius struggling with the geniuses who came before him by producing strong misreadings of them in his own original work. Bloom brought a modified version of this conception to bear on the Bible in The Book of J (1990), a book written with great imaginative flair but with a sketchy knowledge of biblical scholarship and a lamentable dependence on a highly flawed translation that he commissioned for his volume. The writer J, very much an individual author in Bloom’s understanding, emerges as an ancient Hebrew forerunner of Shakespeare, a strong Hebrew poet who established the terms by which human nature would be typically imagined for the next two millennia. In Bloom’s fanciful reconstruction J also turns out to be a woman – a notion inspired, I suspect, by Samuel Butler’s The Authoress of the Odyssey – because of the fine empathy for female figures in the J texts (though on analogous grounds, one might infer that the author of Anna Karenina was a woman).

There is a great deal of engaging silliness in Bloom’s book, and as Toorn’s careful delineation of ancient scribal culture makes clear, it altogether ignores the collective aspects of literary production in biblical Israel. Yet Bloom’s hypothesis, however extravagant, does raise a certain challenge for Toorn’s reconstruction of Israelite literary culture. For all the scribal character of the editing, transmission and even the actual composition of the texts, is there any evidence in them of the presence of individual authors – of individual geniuses?

Toorn’s idea of successive groups of copyists-editors-writers, operating within the fixed regimen of scribal schools, clearly holds for a good deal of biblical literature, but it may not explain all the texts that have come down to us, as he seems to assume. Let me cite a case in which his account is especially persuasive before considering some instances where it may be questionable. The Book of Psalms incorporates nine poems composed as alphabetic acrostics. The language of these psalms is rather routine, using a large amount of boilerplate phraseology. Most egregious is Psalm 119, which – with eight lines for each of the 22 letters of the Hebrew alphabet and a plethora of stereotypical formulas praising God’s wisdom and justice – is the longest chapter in the Bible and one of the dullest. Toorn, pointing to a Babylonian cuneiform acrostic text that was used for the instruction of scribes, proposes that the acrostic psalms served a similar function in ancient Israel, and were probably employed pedagogically in scribal schools connected with the temple. This might well explain why such mechanical verse ended up in a collection that includes some very great poetry.

It is the great poetry, however, that leads one to wonder about the invariable applicability of Toorn’s scribal model. To mention two poems out of many, let me recall the exhilarating grand panorama of creation of Psalm 104 (‘Setting beams for His lofts in the waters,/making His chariot the clouds,/He goes on the wings of the wind . . .’) and the exquisite poetic reprise of Genesis 1 in Psalm 8:

When I see Your heavens, the work of Your fingers,
the moon and the stars You fixed firm –
‘What is man that You should note him,
and the human creature, that You pay him heed,
and You make him little less than the gods,
with glory and grandeur You crown him?’

In poetry of this high order, one feels oneself in the presence of a master, whatever the anonymity imposed on him by institutional constraints or cultural conventions. It is conceivable, but not readily imaginable, that such poems were the product of scribal teams, stitching together and revising an assemblage of old texts and oral traditions, but such a hypothesis is only a step or two away from the proverbial gaggle of monkeys producing the plays of Shakespeare on typewriters.

The idea of scribal production of great literature looks even more problematic when it is applied to the Book of Job. Here is Toorn’s confident declaration on the subject:

On account of the close association of wisdom and the scribal art, both in Mesopotamia and in Israel, there can be little doubt that the Book of Job goes back to a scribe as well. In addition to its focus on the theodicy issue and its use of dialogue, the book betrays its scribal origins through its display of rare vocabulary and knowledge of natural phenomena. The text exhibits the influence of compendium lists as they were used in scribal schools.

The reasoning here is extremely shaky. By sheer metonymy (‘the close association of wisdom and the scribal art’), Job is said to have scribal origins. But its argument is a radical subversion of mainline Wisdom literature (as reflected in Proverbs and in many psalms), and if, as Toorn repeatedly claims, the scribal schools existed within the temple precincts, it is hard to imagine how so scathing a critic of received doctrine could have operated there. The notion that the use of rare vocabulary reflects scribal origins is a consequence of Toorn’s unswerving attachment to the idea of a regimen of verbal exercises among the scribes as a background to the sundry biblical texts. In Job, these unusual lexical items, coupled with the most inventive deployment of innovative imagery, are not introduced to practise ‘vocabulary words’ but as instruments of the most astonishing poetry in the whole Hebrew Bible. (And one should keep in mind that many poets in different eras have been fond of rare words, as the recent examples of Mallarmé, T.S. Eliot and Wallace Stevens will suggest.) Finally, it does no justice whatever to the richness of this particular text to think, for example, of the transcendent meteorological and zoological panorama of the Voice from the Whirlwind as a ‘compendium list’. We shall never know whether the Job poet worked in isolation or in conversation with a few like-minded heterodox intellectuals, but we are surely entitled to think of him as a poet of genius, and not as a functionary in a school of scribes.

In one respect, Toorn’s conception of the biblical texts continues a trend that has been dominant in biblical studies since the 19th century, which is to dissolve each book, and even smaller units within the books, into atomistic particles brought together through redaction. The composite nature of most biblical texts is hardly deniable, but the question is how far one should push the idea. Thus, the psalm inserted in the second chapter of Jonah is characterised by Toorn as ‘an anthology of lines from the Psalms’. This assumption is gratuitous for the simple reason that many psalms use stereotypical language that recurs frequently in the canonical collection, and it is perfectly plausible to conclude that the Jonah psalm is just such a traditional integral composition, not quoting other psalms but rather sharing formulas with them.

More substantive for Toorn’s general claims, he ends up rejecting the idea that the prophets were in any sense authors or were in any meaningful way responsible for the poetry attributed to them in the books that bear their names. ‘Working with written sources of various kinds, the composers of the prophetic books expanded the prophetic materials by a process of relecture, creative citation, and appropriation of written oracles from anonymous prophets.’ Scholarly analysis long ago concluded that at least in the three major prophets multifarious oracles from different times and authors were introduced into the scrolls as they were copied and elaborated. But Toorn’s conclusion that the figures of Jeremiah, Isaiah and Ezekiel are all essentially ‘constructs’ of later scribal manipulation seems extreme. The narrative material about the prophets may not be reliably historical in its details. It could be that 30, 50, even 70 per cent of the first 39 chapters of Isaiah are not the work of Isaiah the son of Amoz, but there is scarcely evidence for the categorical idea that the prophet of eighth-century Jerusalem did not compose some of the exalted poetry, a powerful verbal registering of his visionary experience, that appears in the book attributed to him. Admittedly, each of the prophetic books in the form that has come down to us is a construct of scribal or editorial activity, but that does not preclude the possibility of a poet-prophet whose name scribal tradition preserved as the author of the initial core of texts around which the rest grew; unless, that is, one is completely wedded to the idea that no individual authors could have existed in ancient Israel.

Perhaps the thorniest aspect of this whole issue are the major Hebrew narratives, where the rule of anonymity is never broken and where the evidence of the composite nature of the texts abounds, though few would claim that the narratives are so lacking in unity as to be ‘anthological’, as could be said of the prophetic books. Was there, for example, an actual author behind the strand of texts designated by scholarship as J, or is he (she?) entirely a figment of Bloom’s perfervid imagination? Toorn concedes only that ‘the language of each’ – Pentateuchal – ‘version is characteristic of a particular scribe or scribal tradition,’ but will not permit himself to use so prejudicial a term as ‘author’ or ‘writer’. ‘Scribe’, however, not to speak of ‘scribal tradition’, seems a rather feeble concept for explaining the origins of the Garden story and the Joseph narrative, which are among the most probing and (in the case of the latter) psychologically subtle manifestations of narrative art in the Western tradition. Bloom’s idea of an ancient Near Eastern equivalent of Shakespeare may not be as fanciful as it first sounds.

As a case in point, consider a biblical text Toorn does not deal with, the David story. It is not all of one piece: there are indications at a number of points of interventions by a Deuteronomistic editor, and at least a few episodes and many smaller bits reflect pronounced differences in style and outlook from the main narrative and surely derive from other sources. Nevertheless, the overall story of David from shepherd youth to martial hero and king, to feeble old man shivering on his deathbed, is the greatest account of an individual life evolving through time that was produced anywhere in antiquity. (I happen to think that it is integrally related to the preceding story of Saul and comes from the same hand, but here I dissent from the consensus of biblical scholarship.) The David story is also a masterful study of man as a political animal, subject to the lacerating and corrupting impulsions of the struggle to achieve and maintain power. (Perhaps its only equal in this regard is The Charterhouse of Parma. Stendhal, of course, had a comic gift that the David author lacks, but, on the other hand, the biblical story produces tragic resonances that are beyond Stendhal.) Let me add that in regard to verbal craft, the David story is repeatedly dazzling: in its brilliant and varied deployment of dialogue, in its use of recurrent motifs and of literary allusion, in its subtle shifts of narrative point of view, and much else.

It strains credibility to imagine that all this formidable artistry is the product of scribal tradition or even of a single figure who could be adequately characterised as a scribe. To be fair to Toorn’s hypothesis, one must grant that this narrative does not exhibit in all respects the kind of indelible authorial signature we are accustomed to in modern literature. Stylistically, it is not readily distinguished from the Hebrew prose of J or E (the Pentateuchal strand that favours ‘Elohim’ as the name of the deity rather than ‘Yahweh’), and so it is quite unlike a piece of writing by Faulkner or Hemingway or Proust, where the presence of the individual writer is palpable in virtually every sentence through the way language is fashioned. The conventions for presenting dialogue, for moving back and forth between dialogue and narrative exposition, and for the deployment of type-scenes, are essentially the same as in Genesis, Exodus, Judges and elsewhere. In this regard, the institutional procedures of a scribal culture are a plausible explanation for the relative uniformity of technique and style in most of the Pentateuch and the Deuteronomistic history.

Nevertheless, the author – as I think we must call him – of the David story is not only a consummate practitioner of traditional narrative conventions but also a person with a particular vision of human nature, moral conflict, politics and history that has no equivalent elsewhere in biblical writing. His characters are capable of utterly surprising yet convincing changes and twists, and their rendering exhibits the kind of existential seriousness that Erich Auerbach associated with the most authoritative representation of reality in literature. David, for example, a figure who until the mid-point of his story is assigned only politically motivated speech, turns to his courtiers in stark words to explain why he has abruptly renounced his mourning ritual after learning that the infant son born him by Bathsheba is dead: ‘I am going to him. He will not come back to me’ (2 Samuel 12). Or again, informed of the death of Absalom, the son who had deposed him and sought to kill him, he cries out in a famous, heart-stopping stammer of paternal grief: ‘My son, my son, Absalom! Would that I had died in your stead!’ (2 Samuel 19). Such moments reflect an unflinching insight into the essential unpredictability of character and into irreconcilable conflict within the character – between political necessity and personal bonds, between pragmatic reason and emotion – that may be altogether new in literature and that is certainly unique in the Bible. Its only credible source – even if one grants a general background of scribal culture – is a strikingly bold and original individual imagination.

Scribal Culture and the Making of the Hebrew Bible is a salutary book based on the most formidable scholarly knowledge and analysis. It will compel readers to rethink their conceptions of literary production in ancient Israel, and it is a valuable reminder that in many respects those responsible for the biblical corpus were quite far from being early Iron Age equivalents of Flaubert or Henry James. But the book also suffers from the defects of its abundant virtues in assigning virtually everything to scribes and their disciples and the schools within which they operated. If some biblical texts are indeed patchwork or anthological – ‘books’ assembled, as it were, by committee – there are also powerful expressions of individual imagination in this culture of anonymous writing. That is one reason why many of the stories and poems still speak to us so profoundly.