Review of David M. Carr, Writing on the Tablet of the Heart
Journal of Hebrew Scriptures - Volume 8 (2008) - Review

David M. Carr, Writing on the Tablet of the Heart: Origins of Scripture and Literature (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005). Pp. xiv + 330. Hardcover, CAN$113.95, US$65.00. ISBN 0-19-517297-3.


The study of the Scripture has only slowly expanded to seeing it as a product and process of enculturation. What were the origins of the Scripture? What were its function and use? These are the main questions Carr sets out to investigate in this book.

Chapter One lays the foundation for the study. The Parry-Lord school of thought held that oral traditions are thoroughly segregated from literary ones and that the compositional techniques are contradictory and mutually exclusive. But Carr builds on a stream of scholarship that argues written texts are intensely oral and oral texts are deeply affected by written culture.

To understand fully the relationship between oral and written compositions, a look at education, especially its curriculum, is essential because, it is maintained, texts were used and produced mainly for the purpose of shaping the young minds. In the next five chapters in Part I, Carr studies early examples of textuality and education in ancient Near East. In ancient Mesopotamia, where the earliest and best-documented textual system is found, a complex way of writing dictated that education was limited to a select group (p. 20). These future intellectual elites proceeded from the rudiments of Sumerian language and values through memorizing and copying a group of texts to a broadening range of texts that required and enhanced autonomy and mastery. In all stages, memorization plays a prominent role because written works were but the tip of a largely oral iceberg. When a scribe reached a high level of mastery of the tradition, he could then use this memorized compositional lexicon to create new works (p. 36).

The Egyptian education also involved copying, memorization, and recitation of the core curriculum. Similarly, the written text was but an aid to memory and oral performance. In Egypt, however, textual storage and production was predominantly linked with temples.

Although no advanced school texts were found in Greece, artistic depictions of education and textual use were widespread. From textual witnesses, however rare they were, and from images, Carr concludes that writing in ancient Greece was linked from an early point to the tradition of recitation of poetry, serving as a secondary support for readers who already knew the poetry well (p. 98). Its main curriculum was the great Greek poets of the past, especially Homer. The goal of education, in addition to intimate knowledge of poetic classics as well as certain ethical principles, was the induction of a student into an elite male culture. In this way, Greek education was different from the counterparts in Mesopotamia and Egypt. The aim was not to train a textually expert scribal elite, but to form an aristocratic elite of Greek citizens.

In a book subtitled “Origins of Scripture and Literature,” paying attention to ancient Israel is only natural. The main thesis is that biblical texts joined the stream of long usage when they were used to educate and enculturate young elites (p. 112). Although epigraphic evidence is scant, its content and distribution attest to the literacy of the royal administration and the use of extended oral-written educational texts (p. 166). Successive generations of master Israelite scribes revised and augmented the curriculum by building on templates provided by earlier texts.

Education during the Hellenistic period was more complex. The six chapters in Part II are devoted to the interrelationship between textuality and education in the eastern Hellenistic world. It appears that the Greek training was an enterprise centered on individual teachers, and a school often consisted of little more than the teacher, an agreed meeting place, and any associated upper-level students functioning as assistants (p. 178). Elementary education concerned basic literacy, higher-level grammatical education was only available to a few, and an even smaller number of students could go on to the third stage to be trained in rhetoric. Another distinct feature of the Greek education was that the gymnasium served as a more decisive marker of membership in the upper society. It was here that the students were socialized into the Greek way of life. Hence, education and textuality were part of a broader clash of cultures. The production and transmission of texts could be understood only when the appropriation and resistance of foreign influence by an indigenous culture are taken into consideration. Carr provides three illustrations. Chapter 8 describes Jewish education during this period, which was centered in the temple and focused on priests. Qumran, which provides the most important evidence relevant to the topic, is the subject of Chapter 9. Chapter 10 then tracks the development of education beyond the Temple, when synagogues became the platforms. Before his concluding reflections (Chapters 12 & 13), Carr argues that the Jewish Bible originated in the second century B.C.E. as a purportedly pre-Hellenistic deposit of sacred Hebrew texts, a deposit initially standing opposed to and distinguished from the corpus of Greek educational texts (p. 253).

Bible scholars cannot afford to be ignorant of Carr’s argument presented here. It puts these texts back into a historical, cultural and social matrix that explains the origins and functions of the Scripture. In fact, Carr’s book should be handy to all students of biblical studies. Information about the origins of Scripture and literature that had to be gleaned through numerous journals and books is now available in a single volume.

Wesley Hu
China Evangelical Seminary