March 17, 2008
Those Old Scribes
Karel van der Toorn’s Scribal Culture and the Making of the Hebrew Bible (Harvard University Press, 2007) is a fascinating work for anyone interested in the possible processes by which the Hebrew Bible reached its canonical shape. As a twenty-first century book editor interested in this from both a scholarly and editorial standpoint, it’s doubly fascinating. Chapter Five is on “Making Books: Scribal Modes of Text Production.” There he discusses “six ways in which scribes produced written texts. They might engage in (1) transcription of oral lore; (2) invention of a new text; (3) compilation of existing lore, either oral or written; (4) expansion of an inherited text; (5) adaptation of an existing text for a new audience; and (6) integration of individual documents into a more comprehensive composition.” His discussion of each of these is supported by evidence from the ancient Near East (Egypt or Mesopotamia or both) as well as evidence from the Hebrew Bible.
I suspect some evangelical scholars will take issue with some of the claims of biblical evidence. Fair enough. For one thing, the work of someone like Alan Millard is not fully appreciated by van der Toorn (who buries in his footnotes a somewhat snarky comment regarding Millard’s work). But one point I think van der Toorn establishes is that the notion that scribes were mere copyists, just “editors,” and not involved in the literary production or composition of texts is deeply flawed.
In fact, this is not even true of contemporary editors. While the general norm for strictly academic editing (say, a scholarly monograph) is that the author’s words are carefully preserved, there are clear exceptions that generally go unmentioned, at least publicly. Then too, moving down the shelves from scholarly to general and popular books, the level of editorial “text production” can be (not necessarily regularly and certainly not always) quite extensive. This was a revelation to me when I started working in publishing in the mid-1980s.
My point is not to use today’s in-house practices as a measure for ancient practices, and thus commit the sin of anachronism, or to arouse suspicions of what “really” happens within publishing offices today. But any experienced editor could tell you stories. And in fact I have occasionally wondered whether perhaps some of our contemporary biblical scholars who draw judgments on what “must” have taken place in the making of the Hebrew Bible are not being anachronistic themselves, imposing their experiences of publishing with certain university presses where editing consists of no more than fussing over commas, capitalizations and formatting. In other words, perhaps some are unduly influenced by that rarified context of some university presses where the express will and intention of the attributed and individual author reigns supreme (and, frankly, it sometimes shows!). Then too there are doctrinal commitments that determine these conclusions for some.
To cite a concrete example of ancient scribal practice, van der Toorn brings up a fascinating piece of Sumerian evidence having to do with the method of integrating documents into a larger composition (see  above) (van der Toorn, pp. 137-38). The scribe Esagil-kin-apli was authorized by royal mandate to create a canonical version of a diagnostic compendium called Sakikku. In speaking of the process, the scribe likens his work to “weaving.” That is, he brought together materials that had not previously been part of a single work and “wove” them together to create a single authoritative work. Van der Toorn describes this scribal achievement as both “critical and compositional.” The scribe was not preserving documents intact but piecing them together in a new composition. This raises the question of whether the notion of an editor using “J” and “P” sources to construct, say, Genesis 6—9 is not, on grounds of ancient scribal practice, actually quite plausible and is not to be so easily brushed aside as a “scissors and paste” anachronism. As van der Toorn comments, “The scribal workshop of the temple in Jerusalem may have been an enclave of literacy in an oral world, but it was not for that reason any less sophisticated than the scriptoria of the medieval monasteries” (p. 140).
There is good reason to believe (on the basis of scriptural and ancient Near Eastern evidence) that there was a “scribal workshop of the temple,” and that it was presided over by learned scribes of the priestly class. Evangelical OT scholarship has traditionally been fixed on the notion of individual authors (a Moses or Isaiah), and this is bound up with a nexus of arguments seemingly required by a particular understanding of revelation, inspiration and inerrancy. (Fortunately, in my opinion, this is changing.) But is this view necessary? Is it actually supported by the evidence? Since I’ve already vastly simplified the matter, let me plunge headlong down this course. What if we were to consider more fully and seriously the historical and theological rationale for canonical Scripture emerging (in its canonical form) from the sacred center of Israel, that is, the Jerusalem temple with its priestly scribes?
George Schwab, in his excellent article on “Song of Songs” in the Dictionary of the Old Testament: Wisdom, Poetry & Writings, makes a move in this direction as he concludes his discussion of authorship and date of the Song:
As usual with biblical books, Song of Songs exhibits some features that appear to be early and others that appear to be late. We must keep in mind that even if one adopts the traditional view that Solomon authored all or part of the book, it was the property of literate scribes who copied and transmitted it from generation to generation. Very late was the stage when their task was merely to make commentary and reproduce as accurately as possible the “original.” Before then, they enjoyed freedom to be creative in reworking and formatting their texts. These copyists lived through very different times, faced various spiritual struggles over the years, were immersed in cultures of great diversity, and even spoke in different languages. Although the essential core of Song of Songs originally was intended to answer a spiritual need at some point in time (perhaps the time of Solomon), as the centuries passed, these needs changed, and perhaps so did Song of Songs to some extent, until it finally solidified into the form known today in the MT.