IVP - Addenda & Errata - Scribes Have Culture, Authors . . . Not So Much

September 15, 2011

Scribes Have Culture, Authors . . . Not So Much

I’ve been revisiting some books on ancient scribal and literary production—books like David M. Carr’s Writing on the Tablet of the Heart, Karel van der Toorn’s Scribal Culture and the Making of the Hebrew Bible and William Schniedewind’s How the Bible Became a Book. It’s become clear that in thinking about “publishing” texts in the ancient Near East in general we need to clear away some modern conceptions of authors and editors and recast others. So if authors and editors want to have A Year of Living Biblically (or maybe Babylonially), here’s how it’s going to look:

For authors, the news isn’t so good

*Texts tend to be anonymous

*No title page

*No “ownership”

*No copyright

*It’s a corporate enterprise, so as far as authorship goes, it’s like writing company promotion pieces or ad copy

*So you’ve got no platform

*No advertising

*No promotion

*We don’t give a fig for your “originality”—it’s all about tradition

*Uh … no royalties for you!

In other words, “author” is such a nasty modern convention, infused with individualistic notions of self-expression. Really, when it comes down to it, modern authors should be ashamed of themselves! (Or thank the Hellenistic era for starting to bring them to the fore.)

But for editors, well, here the news is much better!

*We’re scribes, and that’s no small thing

*We’re well trained scholars

*We make historical waves with our scribal culture

*We tinker with, expand and otherwise meddle with the text, and no one complains—there’s little distinction between us and the “author”

*Except that we might even get our name on the colophon (ancient title page)

The hoi polloi think of us as virtual wizards, particularly if we’re writing or reading in Sumerian, Akkadian or Egyptian. (How *did you do that?!)

*We memorize a lot of important canonical texts and can spout them off at will

*It’s a bit of a bummer that a lot of those texts are on divination or astrology, but it makes us popular at parties

*Uh … we get paid of course (by temple or court or patron)

In other words, you’d be better off being a scribe! (Or come to terms with the fact that authors are, in most cases, scribes under witness protection.)

Posted by Dan Reid at September 15, 2011 9:24 AM Bookmark and Share


"In other words, “author” is such a nasty modern convention, infused with individualistic notions of self-expression."

When I read these words I recalled a conversation with a woman who was lamenting how difficult it was to get her children's book published and how little some publishers are willing to pay.

Forget the fact that her book was ten pages in length, with a few graphic images yet to be determined. She bemoaned the paltry 10% some publishers were offering in light of all the hard work she had put in to writing the book. After multiple repetitions of "only 10% when I worked so hard on it..." I simply commented, "It makes you wonder how God feels when we give him our paltry 10% after all the work His Son has done."

That basically ended the conversation.

Comment by: Norm at September 15, 2011 12:55 PM

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