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VCU Menorah Review Summer/Fall 2010
Number 73
For the Enrichment of Jewish Thought

How an Educated Elite May Have Shaped the Bible

Van der Toorn, Karel. Scribal Culture and the Making of the Hebrew Bible. Cambridge, MA.: Harvard University Press.
A review essay by Kristin M. Swenson

If Menorah Review were in the habit of giving stars to especially outstanding books, I'd lobby hard for Scribal Culture to have one. In Scribal Culture and the Making of the Hebrew Bible, Karel Van der Toorn, president of the University of Amsterdam, fleshes out an ancient world of literary development wildly unlike todays. Yet he does so in a way that makes sense to modern readers and makes sense of the process of the Bible’s growth and development. But Van der Toorn isn’t simply repackaging old theories; he is peddling something new.

Ideas that change the course of scholarship and plain old general thinking about some well-established matter such as the development of the Bible seldom happen without earlier itchings and inklings. That was true of the magisterial Documentary Hypothesis, which posits four different literary sources for the Pentateuch, made famous by Wellhausen but preceded by and building on the ideas of Graf and Astruc. And it’s true again here. Yet Van der Toorn’s careful examination of ancient scribal culture as crucial to understanding the Bible’s development illuminates what recent scholars have suspected. The Bible grew out of a long process of telling, retelling, recording and editing by disparate individuals and groups both narrowly Israelite and with cosmopolitan experiences and perspectives. But Scribal Culture grounds that suspicion in real evidence that begins not with the text itself but with the people responsible for nurturing and shaping the text. It paints a colorful picture of the world of ancient scribes -- the ways that that they worked, for whom, and why.

“Who wrote the Bible?” is how van der Toorn begins, cutting to the chase. In the face of what seems to be a Sisyphean task, given the trail of failures that precedes him, Van der Toorn lays a firm foundation for answering the question. But rather than positing a particular individual or naming a specific committee(s) of Bible author-editors, conclusions that fail to satisfy because either they depend too heavily on select biblical witness (notoriously problematic for objective historical information) or employ outdated assumptions about the ancient world based on conjecture and fanciful reconstruction, with Scribal Culture Van der Toorn gets to the heart of the process itself.

With an introductory warning that in the world of the ancient Near East, books were not books per se, Van der Toorn prepares his readers' thinking and expectations to enable them to think less in terms of particular individual authors and more in terms of a process. Noting the fact that very few people before the Hellenistic period were literate, Scribal Culture casts new light on the role of oral traditions not just in keeping ideas alive for the community and the stuff of later literary traditions, but also in informing the way that things were written in the first place (to allow their oral performance).

Making use of resources not limited to ancient Israel but from cultures throughout the ancient Near East, Van der Toorn describes the “practice and perception of authorship in antiquity” (Ch. 2) and then tackles the challenge of establishing a concrete image of the identity and activity of scribes in the ancient world (using “comparative evidence” in Ch. 3, and “biblical evidence” in Ch. 4). Before submitting specific biblical texts to scrutiny for traces of scribal practice (“scribal culture in the mirror of Deuteronomy” in Ch. 6, and “the book of Jeremiah as scribal artifact” in Ch. 7), the author describes “scribal modes of text production” (Ch. 5). Finally, acknowledging the exceptional nature of the Hebrew Bible vis-à-vis other ancient Near Eastern texts as a document of enduring authority still today, Van der Toorn addresses the matter of revelation and the “scribal construct of holy writ” (Ch. 8) and concludes by discussing the “closure of the Hebrew Bible” in the book’s last chapter, “Constructing the Canon.”

In the face of the fact that the Bible’s place in our world today as a source of continuing relevance and authority for believers and consistently influential in pop culture makes it seem immediate and modern, Van der Toorn’s book stands as a reminder that in order to truly understand it, one must appreciate the ways in which the Bible is ancient and foreign. The Bible didn’t originate as a single book from a single hand in the way that Van der Toorn’s book itself did. Rather, the select few who attained the education and skills of a scribe worked usually from their place in the temple on seldom-a-blank-page-scroll for other scribes who were equally well-educated, even cosmopolitan and multi-lingual. And that work was seldom a function of composing novelty at the initiative of a literary muse, but rather more the copying and editing in light of new experiences or different perspectives of traditions handed down and handed down again.

Van der Toorn notes six ways in which the ancient scribes produced “new” texts: 1) by transcribing oral traditions (and shaping them in the process); 2) by inventing truly new texts (Van der Toorn suggests that acrostics, and the books of Job and Qoheleth may be the product of such invention; 3) compilation of existing material such laws or oracles; 4) expansion of existing literature, sometimes directly into the text and sometimes se in the document's margins; 5) adaptation for a new audience, e.g. by translation; and 6) integration into a more comprehensive composition. The final product that is the Bible we have today was shaped by each of these techniques.

To create a document that could achieve authoritative status, scribes creatively wedded individual sources supported by different textual communities. Concerning the Pentateuch, Van der Toorn writes, “by writing a work that integrated documents with different ideas and perspectives, the scribes were creating a national written heritage that transcended earlier divisions” (141). The canon itself was the product of deciding to “promulgat[e] … the Torah as the law of the land, issued by God, legitimized by the king, and enforced by Ezra and Nehemiah … The second … was the enunciation of the dogma of the prophetic era” (263). Rejecting later claims to prophecy as illegitimate, the scribes of Jerusalem were able to maintain their position of moral leadership.

Van der Toorn notes that the canon itself “is a triumph of scribal culture” because rather than the canon being a collection of texts that organically developed authority out of the greater community’s affinity with its content, the canon reflects the books of scribal tradition that also fit the criteria of antiquity. With the canon, then, the scribes transferred their own elite traditions, represented in written form, into the sphere and property of the entire community making those texts the cornerstone of national memory and identity.


Kristin M. Swenson is associate professor of Religious Studies at Virginia Commonwealth University and a contributing editor.

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