Journal of Hebrew Scriptures - Volume 10 (2010) - Review

Van der Toorn, Karel, Scribal Culture and the Making of the Hebrew Bible (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2007). Pp. x+401. Softcover. US$18:95. ISBN 978-0-674-03254-5.

The role of writing and scribes in the formation of the Hebrew Bible has been the focus of a flurry of recent research. The erudite work by Karel van der Toorn is a welcome addition to this burgeoning interest among scholars. Van der Toorn's work has two main theses. First, he argues, “The scribes who manufactured the Bible were professional writers affiliated to the temple of Jerusalem” (p. 1). Second, he situates their scribal temple workshop as “active in the period between 500 and 200 B.C.E.” (p. 2). The book begins with a summary of the concept of books and authors in antiquity. Two chapters, “In Search of the Scribes,” then summarize the comparative and biblical evidence for scribes and their social context. The second half of the book then explores the biblical canon more closely beginning with Deuteronomy and Jeremiah, and continues with the development of a Holy Writ and the canonization of the Hebrew Bible. Students will find the chapter on the “Making of Books” quite useful. It details some of the scribal modes of text production including transcription, invention, compilation, expansion, adaptation, and integration of texts. Van der Toorn argues that scribes were not mere copyists; he emphasizes that in spite of the oral background of some biblical literature, the scribes “mold the material that reaches them orally” (p. 115). Van der Toorn's work should spur further discussion of the social location of both cuneiform and Hebrew scribes as well as the approaches that scholars take to the investigation.

The approach and contribution of Scribal Culture is comparative, mainly drawing on Mesopotamian parallels with some discussion of the influence of Egyptian scribalism. His approach distinguishes the book from studies by Susan Niditch or David Carr that reflect upon the interplay between orality and textual formation.[1] Scribal Culture also contrasts with studies that rely on insights drawn from anthropological approaches. In addition, little attention is given to the archaeological context of ancient Hebrew scribes (and this is the most obvious methodological difference with Schniedewind's How the Bible Became a Book). The Egyptian background probably merits more discussion especially since Egyptian supplies several significant loanwords to Hebrew for the scribal toolbox (including words for “ink,” “seal,” “papyrus,” and “palette”) as well as scribal terms for accounting and hieratic numerals. These were probably borrowed in the early Iron Age, perhaps reflecting continuity with Late Bronze Age institutions. Mesopotamian parallels adduced by van der Toorn are striking and informative, though the question of the mechanisms through which they were passed on to Hebrew scribes remains. Given his theses, one might have expected more discussion of the Persian and Hellenistic scribal schools and some mechanisms of transmission. The biblical search is largely limited to an investigation of biblical texts with some interest in the Dead Sea Scrolls. The limited investigation of the epigraphic evidence from the Iron Age may perhaps be explained as resulting from a presumption of a post-exilic dating. In the post-exilic context, the identification of Deuteronomy, Isaiah, and Psalms as the primary texts of the scribal curriculum is understandable and is further supported by their popularity among the Dead Sea Scrolls (p. 102). Yet, the scribal curriculum in pre-exilic ancient Israel needs much more careful analysis, and certainly more than this review can give it. Here, however, Mesopotamian and Egyptian parallels would be a useful starting point. Israelite scribes were apparently familiar with curricula staples like the Gilgamesh Epic and the Code of Hammurabi. Wisdom literature was another staple of Mesopotamian curriculum, and texts like Prov 22:29 (paralleling Egyptian Instruction of Amenemopet 27:16–17) suggest that skillful Israelite scribes studied wisdom.

The most innovative aspect of this work is its relocation of scribes to a temple workshop. According to van der Toorn, “The scholars were religious specialists, and as such the temple was not only their main employer but also their natural habitat” (p. 63). However, the basis for this is tenuous. For example, a general survey of the locations of archives and libraries in the Near East indicates that temples are not the main locus of either archives or school texts. Olof Pedersén notes that only 36 of 127 archives in “official buildings” were found in structures designated as temples, while 91 were in palaces or similar buildings.[2] Notably, nearly twice as many archives, 253, were associated with private houses. The overwhelming majority of texts are administrative, most commonly associated with the royal bureaucracy or private enterprise. Closer inspections of archives also yield problematic results; for example, Yoram Cohen's exhaustive study of the scribes at Emar uncovers no evidence of a temple scribal workshop. In fact, Cohen points out that the scribal school of Zu-Ba‘las was originally designated by the excavators as “Temple M,” but on closer examination, “it was a private dwelling, large enough to accommodate a family along with some fellow students if they made the house their home.”[3] This home had the craftsman and scribal gods Ea and Nabu as its patron, but it also had a bureaucratic official or aklu as a supervisor. In neo-Assyrian times, the aklu was a royal bureaucrat sent to teach conquered peoples as part of the imperial administration; such imperial officials might provide a mechanism for the communication of Mesopotamian scribal traditions to the provinces (e.g., treaties or law codes). Notably, the treaty genre of Deuteronomy receives scant attention. Likewise, the scholars of Assurbanipal's famous library in Nineveh do not warrant investigation. Van der Toorn does cite the important colophon of the Ugaritic scribe Ilimilku, a self-described student of the diviner Attenu, to bolster his case. One colophon, however, is perhaps not the best place to begin in our understanding of scribes at Ugarit; the preponderance of archives excavated in Ugarit were outside the temple. Moreover, W. H. van Soldt argues that ṯʿy, one of the titles of Ilimilku, should be translated as “royal secretary” or “secretary-of-state” (p. 321).[4] And, even this colophon in a religious text found in a temple compound ultimately refers back to the king as the patron. One last example from ancient Hebrew epigraphy would be generations of Hebrew texts excavated at Arad, which are also located in administrative areas outside of the temple. This hardly brings us closer to a temple workshop as the social location for scribes. This quick review suggests that more scrutiny is needed of van der Toorn's proposal for the temple as the primary social location for the scribal workshop.

Given van der Toorn's dating of the temple scribal workshop to the period 500–200 BCE, the Persian and Hellenistic scribal culture demands more attention than one finds in Scribal Culture. Van der Toorn acknowledges that the scribe was “a high-ranking member of the Persian royal bureaucracy...” (p. 79), and figures like Ezra, Nehemiah, or Daniel would fit nicely within this description. At the same time, the social and historical context of Yehud outlined by Schniedewind raises questions about a Persian context of the composition of biblical literature. This issue is further underscored by recent articles in the Journal of Hebrew Scriptures by Oded Lipschits and Israel Finkelstein.[5] Moreover, Hebrew epigraphic evidence is concentrated in the Iron IIB–C periods, while Aramaic epigraphic evidence from Yehud becomes increasingly prevalent by the fourth century BCE and later. Such epigraphic evidence should be taken into account in understanding the location of any scribal workshop. Indeed, much of the literary evidence Scribal Culture adduces for the temple scribal workshop (e.g., Ben-Sira, Dead Sea Scrolls) is more securely dated in the Hellenistic period (as opposed to the Persian period). Thus, the proposed temple scribal workshop has two very different historical and social backgrounds in the Persian versus Hellenistic period that await further investigation.

Scribal Culture argues that there was probably room for only one center of scribal education in Jerusalem. It does seem unlikely that the Jerusalem temple would sustain multiple scribal workshops, but this suggestion has significant implications for source and redaction critical studies. For example, Philip Davies favoured a Hellenistic date for the composition of the Hebrew Bible because “the later we move in date, the easier it is to conclude that the temple could sustain a number of scribal schools with a vigorous scribal activity.”[6] The complexity of biblical literature either requires a long period of formation or multiple scribal schools (or both). The narrowing of the Bible's manufacture to the temple also has unexplored implications. In van der Toorn's words, “The biblical evidence intimates that the scribes behind the Hebrew Bible were attached to the temple as an institutional and intellectual center; they belonged to the clergy” (p. 82). Not withstanding the anachronistic use of the term clergy, it is clear that some scribal figures like Ezra were affiliated with the temple. At the same time, many scribes in the Bible are repeatedly and explicitly affiliated with the palace and the king. Whatever the historicity of the attribution of the proverbs of Solomon to the “men of Hezekiah” (Prov 25:1), the conceptualization of scribal activity as centered in the royal court cannot be dismissed. Beginning with the scribes of King David and Solomon (2 Sam 20:25; 1 Kgs 4:3), scribes are located in the royal court. Even in the Josianic Reforms when a priest finds a scroll, he gives it to a royal scribe who presents it to the king. The Judean officials mentioned in the cuneiform documents excavated in the Ishtar Gate of Babylon are associated with the deposed king of Judah; these cuneiform texts may also suggest possible mechanisms through which Judean royal scribes became acquainted with Mesopotamian scribal traditions. The biblical evidence for temple scribes is especially attached to the Second Temple. Van der Toorn argues, “The priests needed writing skills to do their work” (p. 85). Yet, what is the work of the priest? Van der Toorn's suggestion that the work of the priest is “to read the Torah” (p. 79) retrojects a reality of the later post-exilic period onto the biblical text and strains to support it. Van der Toorn cites texts that mention writing like Hos 8:2, but it is nowhere evident that this writing was related to priestly duties. Moreover, Hosea's editing has a decidedly royal interest (e.g., Hos 3:4–5). Scribal Culture suggests that priests needed scribal skills to be witnesses (e.g., Isa 8:2), but this text mentions both a priest and a non-priest, and the point of the text is the reliability of the witnesses, not whether they have scribal skills. The one area where writing might be part of the priestly job description is in magic (e.g., Num 5:23), but this is hardly central to the scribal enterprise in ancient Israel. Even in the Persian period when a priestly figure like Ezra can be tied to the Jerusalem temple, the Persian government bureaucracy provides the comparative setting for the scribal workshop.

A critical piece in van der Toorn's search are the “Levitical Scribes,” an institution that he reconstructs from sources like Chronicles, Jubilees, and the Dead Sea Scrolls. The evidence in these post-exilic sources supports his hypothesis that “the Levites were involved in activities that required high literacy” (p. 90). There is little to fault in van der Toorn's construction of a post-exilic institution from Second Temple period sources, but should this reconstruction be applied to the pre-exilic or exilic periods as well? Indeed, it is quite striking that none of the priestly literature of the Pentateuch takes up the role of writing or written texts in religious culture. It is not until we get texts like Ezra-Nehemiah, Jubilees, or Ben-Sira that the priestly and levitical background of the scribe in the temple becomes clear. Van der Toorn's “telltale” piece of evidence turns out to be the common mistranslation of Deut 17:18–19, namely, “when [the king] accedes to the royal throne, he shall have a copy of this Torah written for him on a scroll before the Levitical priests” (pp. 95–96). Deuteronomy, however, uses the active verb, thus the king “shall write for himself a copy of this teaching before the Levitical priests.” This may be contrasted with the slight changes in the Temple Scroll, “They shall write for him this law before the priests” (11Q19 56:20–21). As strange as it would seem to later translators, it is the king in Deuteronomy who functions as the scribe and the priests serve as witnesses as in this injunction. Indeed, we should be reminded here of the Assyrian monarch Assurbanipal who also claimed to have learned the scribal arts. Van der Toorn associates texts in Deuteronomy with clearly post-exilic texts that portray the Levites teaching (2 Chr 17:9; Neh 8:8), but this connection is not made in Deuteronomy itself. If Deuteronomy wished to present the Levites as scribes and teachers of the written Torah, one would think that it would be explicit somewhere in Deuteronomy itself. The chapter on “The Teaching of Moses” deals specifically with Deuteronomy, which he ascribes to levitical priestly scribes. He suggests that the scribes presented themselves as “the heirs and successors of Moses” (p. 167), yet the portrait of Moses in Deuteronomy is more complex than van der Toorn acknowledges. Moses is primarily an orator who speaks the word of the LORD and commands the people (not the Levitical priests) to write it down (Deut 1:5; 27:8). Van der Toorn, however, focuses on Moses the writer in Deuteronomy 31, which is part of an editorial repetition of the commissioning of Joshua (cf. Deut 31:6–8 with Josh 1:6–8) that frames and highlights the character of Moses in the final canonical shaping of Deuteronomy. To be sure, Moses is presented as a scribe in the final shaping of the book, and this fits well with the role of Moses in Second Temple literature like Ezra-Nehemiah or Jubilees. Yet, Moses is not typically portrayed as a scribe in the Pentateuch itself; it is only in the final editing as well as later interpretation that Moses becomes the scribe par excellance. It is perplexing that van der Toorn barely mentions well-known parallels between neo-Assyrian treaties and the Book of Deuteronomy (pp. 152–53). Of course, the treaty genre is quintessentially a royal document prepared by royal scribes. And, as the Sefire Inscriptions illustrate, the treaty genre was not limited to cuneiform but was spread to Aramaic scribes (through which it presumably could also have been passed on to Hebrew scribes).

One might have wished for more analysis of Hebrew epigraphic evidence. There is extensive evidence for Hebrew writing during the Iron IIB–C period in spite of the fact that so much evidence was lost because it was written on papyrus or parchment. Caches of Hebrew seal impressions from excavations in Jerusalem point to extensive archives. Unfortunately, there are only a few school texts such as the striking accounting school text from Kadesh-Barnea. During the Persian period, the empire trained scribes that worked in its provinces, and Ezra would be a perfect illustration of the practice. Persian scribal schools, however, taught Aramaic language and curriculum, and there is ample evidence of Aramaic writing from Yehud (though not Hebrew), especially beginning in the fourth century BCE (e.g., archives from Mareshah). One important question is neither raised nor answered in Scribal Culture, namely, what were the mechanisms through which the ancient Hebrew scribes learned their trade—particularly, how they became acquainted with cuneiform scribal curriculum? The examples are not drawn from the Persian period, a period when cuneiform scribal tradition was in a decided decline spurred on by the use of Aramaic as an imperial administrative tool already in the neo-Assyrian period.

In his chapter on “Manufacturing the Prophets,” van der Toorn examines the merger of the prophet with the scribe particularly using the lens of the book of Jeremiah. Here, van der Toorn compares the collections of neo-Assyrian oracles, which he suggests were collected by “scribes of the temple administration” (p. 178). These Assyrian prophecies are usually directed to the kings, just as the biblical prophetic oracles largely are often directed at the king. There is no indication that the temple was ever the social location of the oracles nor was it the social location of prophets. In the Second Temple period, to be sure, the role of the prophet was taken over by the scribe as is well-illustrated by the pseudepigraphic work of Baruch—a scribe who supercedes the prophet Jeremiah himself.

One particularly intriguing contribution in chapter eight is the discussion of a “revelation paradigm” that emerges in the neo-Assyrian period. In particular, van der Toorn points to the neo-Assyrian Catalogue of Texts and Authors as well as other neo-Assyrian texts that ascribe authority and antiquity to classical cuneiform texts. Some texts are dictated by the god Ea and written down by scribes, others are directly from “the mouth of Ea.” Van der Toorn explains “the emergence of the revelation paradigm as a consequence of the shift in the tradition from the oral to the written” (p. 217). This becomes an occasion for van der Toorn to reflect on the role of the written scroll in the Josianic Reforms as well as the formation of Deuteronomy. It would have been perhaps more interesting to reflect on Exodus 24—the other text (besides 2 Kgs 23:2) that mentions the “scroll of the covenant” (v. 7) as well as depicting Moses as writer (v. 4) and the divine tablets that are “written by the finger of God” (v. 12; 31:18). The evidence for revelation as a scribal construct becomes even clearer in Second Temple period Hebrew texts, but van der Toorn pushes this conceptualization well back into the neo-Assyrian period.

Scribal Culture is sure to be a staple in the discussion of the formation of the Hebrew Bible. The work is learned and well-written. The Mesopotamian parallels are informative and sometimes striking. Yet, its theses remain unconvincing to this reviewer. In fact, the Mesopotamian parallels effectively undermine the argument for a 500–200 BCE dating for the manufacture of the Bible,[7] yet Scribal Culture offers little parallel material from the Persian or Hellenistic period. To be sure, the temple was one setting for the scribal workshop, particularly in the Second Temple period; however, the evidence for this in the neo-Assyrian period is not compelling.

William M. Schniedewind, University of California, Los Angeles

[1]See S. Niditch, Oral World and Written Word: Ancient Israelite Literature (Philadephia: Westminister John Knox Press, 1996); W. Schniedewind, How the Bible Became a Book: the Textualization of Ancient Israel (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004); and D. Carr, Writing on the Tablet of the Heart: Origins of Scripture and Literature (New York/Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005).reference

[2]O. Pedersén, Archives and Libraries in the Ancient Near East 1500–300 B.C. (Bethesda: CDL Press, 1998), 260–70.reference

[3]Y. Cohen, Scribes and Scholars of the City of Emar in the Late Bronze Age (Winona Lake, Ind.: Eisenbrauns, 2009), 55–56.reference

[4]W. H. van Soldt, “The Title ṯʿy,” UF 20 (1988), 313-21 (321).reference

[5]See W. M. Schniedewind, How the Bible Became a Book, 165–94; Lipschits, JHS, volume 9 (2009), article 20; I. Finkelstein, JHS, volume 9 (2009), article 24. Both available at http://www.jhsonline.orgreference

[6]P. R. Davies, Scribes and Schools: the Canonization of the Hebrew Scriptures (Philadelphia: Westminster John Knox, 1998), 79.reference

[7]See, for example, E. Otto, Das Deuteronomium. Politische Theologie und Rechtsreform in Juda und Assyrien (BZAW, 284; de Gruyter: Berlin, 1999).reference