Book Notes: Van Der Toorn “Scribal Culture and the Making of the Hebrew Bible”


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Most Relevant Audience: Anyone interested in literary origins of the Bible, writing of Hebrew Bible, scribal culture, ancient writing

Date: 2/20/2017

Karel Van Der Toorn, Scribal Culture and the Making of the Hebrew Bible. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2007.

Chapter 1

  1. Most cultures illiterate 10
  2. Texts meant to be read outloud 11
    1. Silent reading never happened until recent times (post-Augustine)
    2. Written for oral performance, not to simply be read
    3. Don’t have benefits of written (assuming readers can go back and re-read)
    4. “Modern readers of these works, accustomed to the narrative structures of contemporary novels or the argumentative patterns of philosophical essays, are often left with the impression that no progress is being made at all.” 15
  3. Used then for archival purposes. 15
  4. “The books of the Bible were not designed to be read as unities.” 16
  5. Costs were high: “A book was indeed a treasure.” 17
    1. But not so much for clay tablets
  6. Books were not codices, but scrolls.
    1. Makes order somewhat arbitrary. “the decision to put Lamentations right after Jeremiah or to relegate it to the Writings pertains to the editors of a particular codex.” 21
    2. Wrote it in their minds before putting down in text.
    3. Scrolls put constraints on content; 1-2 Kgns, 1-2 Sam broken up; Ezra-Neh-Chronicles broken up (same for Luke-Acts in NT)
      1. Reverse is true: assembly of two major parts of Isaiah, etc. Reasons for redactions like this may have to do with economy and practical reasons more than authorship issues.
    4. Scrolls don’t lend themselves to easy quotation since their so continuous and different for each copy (size, typeset, etc.). Memory was most cited reference.
  7. “To speak about the Bible is misleading on more than one account. Historically, the Hebrew Bible is a collection of scrolls, and scrolls cannot be simply equated with books. The difference between the two is not merely a matter of form; it affects the mode of writing, editorial strategies, and the way in which readers used the text.” 23
  8. Modern books came in 300 BCE generally
    1. Rise of schools
    2. Rise of libraries
    3. Growth of reading public (1 Macc; records private ownership of Torah) 24
      1. New genres; adventures, testaments, etc. 25
    4. And what is this “book”? Text published by its author through medium of an organized book trade for the benefit of expected public. It is thus an “anachronism.”
    5. “Stream of tradition” is better: “the Hebrew Bible is a collection of texts written, studied, and copied over the centuries by scribes in the Jewish centers of scholarship. They are the collective property of the scribal community; the Hebrew Bible is their legacy.” 26


Chapter 2 (Authors in Antiquity)

  1. “Up until the end of the Middle Ages, readers were more concerned with the authority of books than their authenticity. The author was deemed relevant mainly as a source of authority. Our modern emphasis on the author as an individual artist is a legacy from the romantic movement.” 27
  2. “Generations of Bible students have bene raised on the notion that the books of the Bible should be read and interpreted” from perspective of author, but that assumes a distinctly modern view of authorship. 29
  3. “Until the dawn of modernity, neither theologians nor lay people had any great interest in the individual authors who wrote down the Bible texts. The Bible was the Word of God; whichever humans had been involved in its making were looked upon as mere channels for a heavenly voice. Human authorship was of no interest in comparison to the issue of authority…Only when the Bible was no longer literally the Word of God did its human authors gain importance.” 29
    1. This is an overstatement, as many pre-modern Bible commentaries will show.
    2. Should say “lesser interest” not “no interest.”
  4. Erosion of author
    1. Who determines meaning in the text: author or reader?
    2. “the author can never be an independent agent because he or she is always a ‘function’ of society.” 31
    3. “The above considerations illustrate that the notion of the author as an autonomous agent of creative genius is a historical construct.” 31
  5. Characteristics of ancient work
    1. Anonymity; “it was uncommon for an author to sign his or her work.” 31
      1. Colophon was equivalent of title page; scribal note at end of text. 31
        1. Often lacked name of author!
      2. Super/subscripts; our copies don’t have scripts that mention author
  • Titles also came later (by name of protagonists)
  1. Pseudonymity
    1. Honorary authors; attributed to people who didn’t really write them.
      1. Cf today’s ghost-writing
    2. Pseudopigraphy (under fictional name “from remote times in order to present their work as a legacy from the venerable past.” 34
  • Argues that Deuteronomy was a work of “pious fraud” to legitimize Josiah’s reforms. Jeremiah denounced it as fraud, and Huldah verified it (assuming the book of the Law is Deuteronomy). 35
    1. No real evidence for this, however.
  1. Same for Ezekiel and Daniel (pseudo)
  2. Pseudonymity was really popular in Hellenistic and Greco-Roman era.
    1. Gnostic Gospels
    2. Apocryphal works
  3. Attributed Authorship
    1. Work of editor attributing, say, Psalms to Solomon (Ps 72, 127) and Moses (90), or Proverbs to others (Prov 30-31).
      1. Attributing all of Psalms to David or Proverbs to Solomon is clearly oversimplification.
    2. None of prophets writings are anonymous.
  • Names of prophets are originally found in superscriptions, and those are attached by editors.
  1. Quote from Talmud saying who authors of Torah were. 44-45
    1. “Since they followed the doctrine that the Torah is from heaven—as are by extension all the scriptures—human authorship was a matter of little importance to them. Humans were involved in the making of the Hebrew Bible but only in their capacity as transcribers.” 45
  2. “There does not seem to be a coherent notion of authorship in the texts from antiquity.” 45
  3. “To us, it would seem wrong to credit an editor with the work of the author…This distinction was obviously less important to the ancients.” 47


Chapter 4: In search of scribes 2 (biblical evidence)

  1. Scribal writing indicated in Jer 8:8 and Jer 36:18 (Baruch)
  2. Ezra was a scribe (Ezra 7:25 etc); few times that scribes come into the open. 79
  3. Levitical scribes had special role (2 Chron 17:9)
  4. Goal of scribes: wisdom in Torah tradition
  5. “All authors agree that a monarchic government entails a bureaucracy, and that a bureaucracy needs scribes. That fact by itself, however, does not mean that the scribes employed by the royal bureaucracy wrote the Bible. The most explicit reference to the effect that biblical texts were composed at the instigation of the king is the superscription of Prov 25:1…” 82-83
  6. Temple and not just royal palace was center for writing:
    1. Temples in Israel were centers for written law.
      1. Hilkiah’s finding scroll in 2 Kings 23:24-25; 22:8. “Since the story is meant to promote a recent codification of the Torah, the book was manufactured in the temple rather than found there. It is presumably the same Torah Jeremiah identified as the work of scribes (Jer 8:8).” 87
      2. “In Israel, the written law came from God—that is, it belonged to the realm of the temple.”
    2. Temple was archive of written oracles.
      1. Ezekiel was prophet and priest.
    3. Temple was center of education and training.
      1. Samuel learned from Eli in temple of Shiloh (1 Sam 1; 2)
    4. Documents attest that Levites were part of the elite group of scribes.
      1. Levites are “Levitical priestss” in Deut, but we read “Levites and priests” (separate) in Chronicles (post-exile).
      2. Probably evolved; division of labor occurred after 722. Eventually Levites fell out of the picture so by the time of Jesus, there were only “priests” and “scribes.” 95
    5. Scribal training
      1. Very little know
      2. Probably classic ed model: learn basic skills, than master classic texts
      3. Acrostics are in Psalms and other writings, for learning purposes likely
      4. Lots of practical applications: notaries, financial record keeping, bills of confession etc.; tasks related to Temple.
      5. Levitical signatures are prominent after manuscripts of Deuteronomy, Isaiah, and Psalms (interestingly the most cited NT texts by Jesus). 102
    6. Scribal Status
      1. “upper-middle-class” 105
      2. “The transformation of Judaism into a religion of the Book promoted the scribes to a prominent position. Through the doctrines of the Mosaic succession and the departure of the spirit of prophecy, the scribes claimed, in fact, a monopoly on religious instruction.” 107
        1. These scribes were later problematic to Jesus’ mission, one must be reminded.

Chapter 5: Modes of text production

  1. Transcription of oral stories. (eg Baruch and Jeremiah)
    1. We can see how this works by multiple versions of same story etc.
    2. Similar to work of Gospel accounts in NT
  2. Invention (creation/authoring); not mere reporting
    1. No biblical works are attributed to purely scribal writing.
    2. It’s possible some of the Psalms were written by scribes and not just reported from other sources.
    3. Many writings were written by scribes, however, like Ezra.
  3. Compilation
    1. As we saw, this is explicit in Proverbs 25:1, 31:1.
    2. Probably Isaiah and other prophetic books are collections of oracles by the prophet.
      1. Explicit sometimes due to formulas “thus says Yahweh” vs “oracles of Yahweh”. 123
    3. Psalms also explicit in superscriptions.
  4. Expansion
    1. Enlarge an existing document with their own additions or clarifications.
    2. Probably minimal because of how serious the work was done and how sacred the text was. We wouldn’t expect radically different works.
    3. Could involve re-writes, like Gospel of Luke (cf)
    4. Best biblical example of this is Jeremiah. Greek version is about 15% shorter than Hebrew. Most scholars agree LXX version is earlier and more authentic.
    5. “The scribe adds patronymics (29:21, 36:8); specifies Baruch’s profession (36:26, 36:32);
    6. explains the topographical setting of events (37:17, 41:1); emphasizes the chronology (28:1); fills in names (21:1, 28:4), 40:9, 52:16); and clarifies the significance of the descriptions by adding details to the point of redundancy (36:6, 41:2, 41:7).” 132
    7. Says the way in which oracles are treated they produce “in fact new oracles.” 134
  5. Adaptation
    1. Translation, re-write
    2. Psalm 20 appears to be an adaptation from a prayer to Baal where Yahweh is substituted. (Cf Genesis as polemic)
  6. Integration
    1. Editorial work; combining stories, re-arranging them