Scribal Culture and the Making of the Hebrew Bible

by Karel van der Toorn

ECambridge, MA: Harvard Univ. Press, 2007, 401 pp.
$18.95 (paperback)

Reviewed by Alan Millard

“There were no books in ancient Israel,” declares the author. Reading was rare, limited to scribes, who worked in a mainly oral society. Writing books developed only in the Hellenistic period, after Alexander the Great. Consequently, the composition of the Hebrew Bible and many of the books in it took place in the time of the Babylonian Exile and afterward. Ezra compiled the Torah from older strands; references to Greece make it “clear that the publication of the Prophets cannot have preceded the Hellenistic era” (p. 255) and Psalms and Proverbs were also edited at this time.

“What’s new?” anyone aware of standard introductions to the Old Testament may ask. The answer is van der Toorn’s investigation of ancient scribal habits and attempt to use them to unravel the history of the Hebrew Bible. He has done something new, something that is worth doing, something that could only be done nowadays after the recovery of so much ancient writing. For many readers it will give welcome support to the Biblical world of mainstream literary theory.

The training of scribes is especially well known from Babylonian sources, and the author describes their schooling clearly. He makes most use of “literary” texts because the Biblical books are literature. He concentrates on the relationship of scribes to temples. That is where, he asserts, “books” were written: “The scribes who manufactured the Bible were professional writers affiliated to the temple of Jerusalem” (p. 1). Van der Toorn is so convinced of this that any other possibility is excluded. Although it is true that many “literary” tablets were written by Mesopotamian scribes connected with temples and found in “temple libraries,” it is also true that scribes lived among their fellow citizens and so their activities could be known to them. Moreover, in some places, notably at Ugarit, tablets found in private houses include both legal and administrative documents and “literary” compositions.

Regrettably, there is no comparable evidence from ancient Israel. The surviving Hebrew ostraca and other writings are mostly brief notes, not intended for long use, so “literary” compositions are rare. Yet some exist, at Arad and at Horvat Uzza; “literary” graffiti occur at Kuntillet Ajrud and in a tomb near Hebron. These are enough to show that Hebrew scribes were not confined to activities at temple or court; people who were not professional scribes could write such things.

The author argues that insufficient demand meant that independent scribes could not earn a living by drawing up legal deeds or writing letters for private citizens. Here the wide distribution of Hebrew ostraca in the seventh century B.C., if not earlier, suggests that scribes were to be found in garrisons at frontier forts and in many towns. That a trained scribe would earn his living only in temple or palace is not proved, either in Mesopotamia or in Israel.

Did prophets write down their words? Van der Toorn says they did not: “Prophets, as a rule, do not write” (p. 112, cf. 186). Certainly cuneiform reports of prophecies were not written by prophets, but was that situation universal? Three instances of prophets writing are cited in the Bible: a prophecy on tablets (Habakkuk 2:2); a large notice (Isaiah 8:1) and a letter (Jeremiah 29:1). To these examples may be added a message from a prophet mentioned in Lachish Letter 3. Van der Toorn dismisses the evidence of Isaiah 30:8 and Jeremiah 30–31 as having been added later (p. 335, n. 10), a process which can be used to discount anything!

The author warns of the dangers in using comparative evidence (p. 4), yet he assumes the same situation applies in regions where the cuneiform script was used as in regions where the Hebrew alphabetic script was used. These are very different writing systems, one very difficult and the other comparatively easy. It seems rash to assume the same reasoning applies in regions where the alphabetic script was used as in regions where the cuneiform script was used. The comparison is especially questionable because the Hebrew sources afford so little information.

That is a caution that should be applied elsewhere. The Epic of Gilgamesh, for example, survives principally in copies made about 1700 B.C and copies made about a thousand years later. Some of the differences between the earlier and later copies can be explained. Biblical scholars like van der Toorn sometimes use the different “editions” of Gilgamesh as models for distinguishing different editions of Biblical books, notably in the Torah, the five books of Moses. This is highly questionable. It should be emphasized that very few of the differences in the Gilgamesh texts could be forecast for the later “edition” if only the earlier one had been discovered, or vice versa. Therefore, separating parts of a Biblical book from others on a basis similar to the Gilgamesh “editions” is entirely hypothetical. To use Gilgamesh as a pattern for Deuteronomy, as van der Toorn does (pp. 126–128, 144–149), is to confuse genres. It would be better to compare Deuteronomy with Hammurabi’s laws, which were copied almost unchanged for a thousand years, or with treaties or royal decrees. Here, too, Egyptian sources are relevant. The famous Story of Sinuhe is available in copies made over many centuries from about 1800 B.C. with little change. Van der Toorn is in fact much more at home in cuneiform texts than in Egyptian texts. Although he gives some attention to Egyptian sources, he could have exploited them more.

The written word was authoritative in the ancient Near East from the third millennium B.C. in administrative and legal circumstances. Hammurabi’s law code states clearly that it was the final authority in a dispute. Kings erected monuments with curses on anyone who altered or destroyed them, and chronicles record their achievements. Papyrus and leather, which were probably the common writing materials in ancient Israel (as well as wooden wax-coated tablets), have perished, so actual examples of ancient Hebrew “books” older than the Dead Sea Scrolls are unlikely to become available.

No suggestion about the early history of a Biblical book can be more than hypothetical, even when the practices of ancient scribes in other cultures are well attested. Too often the author states as fact what are only possibilities, for example that the “Confessions of Jeremiah” did not issue from the prophet (pp. 188–193), or “Without the Persians, there would not have been a Pentateuch” (p. 251).

This book received the 2009 Biblical Archaeology Society Publication Award for the “Best Book Relating to the Hebrew Bible.” Van der Toorn does present a wealth of information, clearly and attractively interpreting many technical studies, all of which will be valuable for future research. Yet he remains wedded to the concepts of Biblical history that were conceived before the resources of the ancient Near East were disclosed.

Alan Millard is Emeritus Rankin Professor of Hebrew and Ancient Semitic Languages at the University of Liverpool and author of Eponyms of the Assyrian Empire, Reading and Writing in the Time of Jesus and Treasures from Bible Times, among others.

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