How the Bible Became a Book: The Textualization of Ancient Israel

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For the past two hundred years biblical scholars have usually assumed that the Hebrew Bible was written and edited mostly in the Persian and Hellenistic periods (the fifth through second centuries B.C.E.). Recent archaeological evidence and insights from linguistic anthropology, however, point to the earlier era of the late Iron Age (eighth though sixth centuries B.C.E.) as the formative period for the writing of biblical literature. How the Bible Became a Book combines recent archaeological discoveries in the Middle East with insights culled from the history of writing to address how the Bible first came to be written down and then became sacred Scripture. This book, written for general readers and scholars alike, provides insight into why these texts came to have authority as Scripture and explores why Ancient Israel, an oral culture, began to write literature. It describes an emerging literate society in ancient Israel that challenges the assertion that literacy first arose in Greece during the fifth century B.C.E.
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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
Since the 19th century, scholars have argued that the earliest stories in the Old Testament were probably recorded during the reigns of David and Solomon. Source critics have tended to isolate at least four sources that lie behind the Pentateuch (J, E, D, P) and have ascribed descending dates to the compositions of these sources. In a richly textured and revolutionary book, Schniedewind argues that the stories traditionally thought to have been written in the 10th and ninth centuries B.C.E. were most likely composed more than 100 years later. Taking a detailed historical and literary approach, he reminds us that early Israel was a largely oral culture, and that even during the consolidation of the kingdom under David and Solomon, few scribes were interested in chronicling the stories of a people. By the eighth century B.C.E., however, during Hezekiah's reign (727-698 B.C.E.), the king's scribes engaged in writing and editing historical narratives and collecting the proverbs attributed to Solomon. The urbanization of Jerusalem provided the social context that allowed the movement from a primarily oral culture to a primarily literary one. Thus, Schniedewind contends that the historical narratives of Joshua, Judges, Samuel and Kings, in addition to the Pentateuch and some of the prophetic writings, can be dated to Hezekiah's reign rather than to an earlier Solomonic period or to a post-exilic Persian period. Schniedewind's provocative thesis will likely generate some controversy, but it will be well received among those who accept the historical revisionism of Israel Finkelstein and others. (Apr. 6) Copyright 2004 Reed Business Information.
From the Publisher
"...provides an excellent example of how a historian acts as a detective... Daniel J. Harrington, America: The National Catholic Weekly

"Exploring the evolution of literature in society and its secular as well as religious ramifications, How the Bible Became a Book is a welcome addition to Biblical studies shelves, as readable and articulate as it is scholarly." The Midwest Book Review

"A fascinating read for lay or scholarly readers, it illuminates why these texts have authority as Scripture. History buffs will enjoy learning why Ancient Israel, an oral culture, began to write literature." Horizons

"...a richly textured and revolutionary book..." Publishers Weekly

"In this extremely well written book, William Schniedewind tackles what has emerged as the most important question in biblical studies of our time - the issue of when the ancient Israelite accounts and traditions were put in writing. In what is probably the most thorough discussion of the shift from oral tradition to literacy and textuality in Ancient Israel, Schniedewind engages the broader cultural and historical questions of the circumstances under which the Bible was written. . . . Sophisticated and broad in its scope and yet easy to follow, this book will certainly become a cornerstone in biblical studies and in the search for the historical Ancient Israel: a real intellectual delight." Israel Finkelstein, co-author of The Bible Unearthed: Archaeology's New Vision of Ancient Israel and the Origin of its Sacred Texts

"For general readers interested in ancient history and religion, for Jews and Christians who study the Bible and its backgrounds, and for scholars who study the relationship between orality and literacy, this book will be both tremendously helpful and very enjoyable.... it has the potential to reshape the study of the Hebrew Bible for years to come." Benjamin D. Sommer, author of A Prophet Reads Scripture

"In this and previous publications [Schniedewind] demonstrates a thorough grasp of the archaeology of ancient Israel, the history of the Hebrew language, and the development of biblical historical literature. Here he synthesizes the research of many others to develop a comprehensive story of the writing of the Old Testament. The result is a grand narrative of the development of scripture in Israel." The Christian Century

"This is a well researched and written book." - Bible Today Diane Bergant

"This book adds a new angle to the discussion of the origins of the Bible." An Interdisciplinary Journal of Jewish Studies Ely Levine, Harvard University

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780521536226
  • Publisher: Cambridge University Press
  • Publication date: 9/28/2005
  • Edition description: New Edition
  • Pages: 272
  • Sales rank: 1,042,338
  • Product dimensions: 5.98 (w) x 8.98 (h) x 0.59 (d)

Meet the Author

Professor William M. Schniedewind chairs the Department of Near Eastern Languages and Cultures and is a Professor of Biblical Studies at UCLA. He has been a fellow at the Albright Institute of Archaeological Research in Jerusalem as well as a Visiting Scholar at the Hebrew University. He received his PhD in Near Eastern and Judaic Studies in 1992 at Brandeis University. He is most recently the author of Society and the Promise to David, published in 1999.

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Read an Excerpt

How the Bible Became a Book

The Textualization of Ancient Israel

Cambridge University Press

Copyright © 2004 William M. Schniedewind
All right reserved.

ISBN: 0-521-82946-1

Chapter One

How the Bible Became a Book

When was the Bible written? Why was it written? These questions strike at the heart of the meaning of the Bible as literature. They also hint at a profound transition in human culture. The Bible is a book. That seems like an obvious statement, but it is also a profound development in religion. We may take books for granted, but the ancients did not. The fact that a sacred, written text emerged from a pastoral, agricultural, and oral society is a watershed of Western civilization. In the pages that follow we will explore the movement from orality to textuality, from a pre-literate toward a literate society. Along the way we will need to trace the social history of ancient Israel and early Judaism as well as the formation of the Bible as written literature. The Bible itself will be an eyewitness to this epic shift in human consciousness, the shift from an oral world toward a textual world. Central to this shift will be the encroachment of the text upon the authority of the teacher.

How did the Bible become a book? This book - the book that you hold in your hands - gives a historical account of writing in ancient Israel and of writing's role in the formation of the Bible as a book. To answer this most basic question, we need to explore a number of related questions such as what function did writing serve in ancient Israelite society during different historical periods? How is the increasing importance of writing in ancient Israel reflected in the formation of biblical literature? How does the Bible itself view its own textuality? What is the relationship between oral tradition and written texts? When and how does the written word supplant the authority of the oral tradition and the living voice of the teacher? When we begin to understand the answers to these questions, then we shall begin to understand how the Bible itself became a book.

These questions can be related to three basic issues. The first is a critique of the question of who wrote the Bible. This book contends that the question "when was the Bible written?" is more appropriate than an anachronistic interest in the Bible's authors. This question not only will give insight into the Bible as literature, it also will open a window into the uneasy transition of ancient Israel into a textual culture. This leads to a second issue: how is it that the Bible is written at all? Ancient Israel before the seventh century B.C.E. was largely non-literate. How does an oral culture like ancient Israel come to express its identity through a written text? How does the basic orality of early Israel shape the Bible as a written text? How does the authority of the written word come to supplant the living voice of the teacher and the community? This leads us to a final issue: what were the particular historical circumstances under which the Bible becomes a text and then Scripture?

The role of writing in the development of Western civilization is not a new topic. A few decades ago, Jack Goody, a Cambridge University professor of social anthropology, wrote the first of several articles and books dealing with the "Consequences of Literacy." This research, now summed up in his recent book The Power of the Written Tradition (2000), has influenced a whole generation of scholars. Goody's work was complemented by Marshall McLuhan, a professor of English at the University of Toronto, who argued in The Gutenberg Galaxy: The Making of the Typographic Man (1962) that the technological innovation of the printing press profoundly shaped modern humankind by bringing about the transition from an audile-tactile culture to the visually dominant age of print. Such studies have spawned scholarly work in many fields in the humanities and social sciences. For example, the linguist Walter Ong wrote Orality and Literacy: The Technologizing of the Word (1982), an influential outline of the impact of developments in writing upon the human consciousness. The importance of emergent literacy and the alphabet in ancient Greece during the fifth century B.C.E. was pointed out by Eric Havelock, a Yale professor of classics, in his book Preface to Plato (1963). Havelock argued that there was a literate revolution in ancient Greece that was inspired, at least in part, by the Greek invention of their alphabet. Havelock's research, which is summarized for the general reader in The Muse Learns to Write: Reflections on Orality and Literacy from Antiquity to the Present (1986), spawned vigorous debate in the field of classics. Although Havelock overstated both the significance of the Greek innovations in the alphabet and the extent and impact of literacy on Greek culture, he was certainly correct in pointing to the role of the alphabet and the spread of literacy in causing fundamental changes in Greek culture. They had an important role in ancient Israel as well, emerging there a couple centuries earlier. The importance of writing in human history is laid out nicely in a survey by Professor Henri-Jean Martin from the Ecole des Chartes in France entitled The History and Power of Writing (1994). All these works (and many others) testify to the transformative power of the written word for human society.

What I shall argue here is that one of the most central moments in the history of the written word occurred in ancient Israel when the written word spread from the narrow confines of palace or temple scribes to the broader society. Writing became part of the fabric of everyday life. Most importantly, written texts for the first time in human history began to have religious and cultural authority. This transference of authority from oral to written is what I refer to in the subtitle of this book, "the textualization of ancient Israel."

The Problem of Who Wrote the Bible

We tend to read the Bible through the lens of modernity. This is to say, we read the Bible as a book. Not only do we tend to think of the Bible as a single book, but we also read the Bible as if it came from a world of texts, books, and authors. We read the Bible from our own perspective of a highly literate world. Yet, the Bible was written before there were books. Let us think of this in another way. The modern "book" (in the narrow sense of that word as the pages bound between two covers) follows the invention of the codex, which had leaves of pages with writing on both sides. The replacement of the traditional scroll by the codex was a major technological development in the history of writing. Codices appeared in the first century C.E. and became common by the fourth century C.E. The codex could encompass a much more extensive series of texts than a single scroll could contain and made "the Bible" as a book - the Bible as we conceive of it - a possibility. In bringing together a collection of scrolls, the codex also defined a set and order of books and made possible a more defined canon. With the codex, the Bible could be a book.

But the Bible was written before there were such codices. It is helpful to remember that the Bible itself is actually a collection of books or scrolls. The English word bible derives from the Greek biblia, which may be translated as "books" or "scrolls." As a result, when we ask how the Bible became a book we are asking, in part, about a collection of books that compose our Bible. The Hebrew word sefer, usually translated as "book," means literally "text, letter, or scroll." In early biblical literature sefer could refer to any written text, although as writing became more common in later periods a more developed vocabulary begins to distinguish between different kinds of written documents. A reader may remark that the title How the Bible Became a Book doesn't refer to a "book" as he or she recognizes it - that is, as a codex. This is true, but as the reader will discover in my second chapter, the almost magical power many continue to associate with books today is not unrelated to ancient Israel's conception of the numinous effects of writing. I chose my title because I wanted to preserve for modern readers the sense of awe and reverence that this transformation from the oral to the textual could generate. Biblical scholars, who invariably translate the Hebrew word sefer as "book," recognize the much broader semantic range of this word than the word "codex." It is in this broader sense of "book" as the written word and as a source of cultural authority that I speak of How the Bible Became a Book.

Who wrote the Bible is a fascinating question, though of debatable value. The ability of this question to captivate our attention is underscored by Richard Elliot Friedman's best-selling book, Who Wrote the Bible? This popular and lucidly written account of biblical criticism actually did quite a bit more than answer the facile question of who wrote the Bible, but the popularity of the work no doubt profited from being couched in this simple question and the simple answers that can be given to it. So, for example, Jeremiah is the Deuteronomist (i.e., he "wrote" Deuteronomy); or, an Aaronid priest wrote the priestly document (e.g., Leviticus). Friedman suggested that biblical literature often cannot be understood without knowing something about its authors, but then he gives the sample question: "Did the author of a particular biblical story live in the eighth century B.C. or the fifth?" The real import of this question is not who is the author, but rather when was the text written. Friedman actually gives rich insight into biblical literature through his adroit historical contextualization. In some ways, it is unfortunate that the book is reduced to the facile question of who wrote the Bible. Yet, it is exactly this question that captures the modern fancy.

One interesting question posed in literary circles is whether the author makes a difference in the meaning of the literature. In an enormously influential book called Is There a Text in This Class? Stanley Fish argued that the interpretative community was ultimately more important than the author because the reader - much to some authors' chagrin - ultimately defines the meaning of a text. The problem is quite stark in the case of biblical literature. The Bible is really a collection of books and not the product of an individual author. Moreover, what a hypothetical author intended to say often is difficult (if not impossible) to recover for an ancient text like the Bible. More accessible (and perhaps more important) is understanding what the text meant to its ancient readers, which does not necessarily resemble an author's intent. For example, what the U.S. Constitution means is usually more a reflection of its readers than its authors. Consequently, the meaning of the Constitution keeps changing along with the changing generations of its readers. Although the framers' intent is certainly important, from a practical standpoint it has been the historical moment when our society read the Constitution that has shaped the history of its interpretation. In the same way, biblical meaning has reflected its readers more than its writers. More than this, the community's role in the reading is even justified because the Constitution (as well as the Bible) is the product and property of the community more than of an individual.

When a text is central to a people or a nation, like the Declaration of Independence or the Constitution is, the history of its interpretation can serve as a window into the history of that people. One socially charged analogy in American history can illustrate. The landmark Supreme Court decision Brown v. Board of Education (1954) overturned "separate, but equal" (Plessy v. Ferguson, 1896) educational facilities for races as a violation of the Fourteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution that guarantees all citizens "equal protection of the laws." This corresponded to a changing American social landscape more than it did the intent of the authors. The different interpretations of the Constitution in 1896 and 1954 reflected the changing social context of the interpreters. The text had not changed, but the readers and their social context had. Similarly, the meaning of the Bible will be imbedded in the history of the people who wrote it, read it, passed it on, rewrote it, and read it again. It is closely tied to when the traditions were collected, written down, edited, rewritten, and finally coalesced into the book we call the Bible.

In an earlier book, I took one example, the Promise to David in 2 Samuel 7, and showed how it functioned as a constitutional text in ancient Israel. This text promised King David and his sons that they would forever reign on the throne of Israel. I illustrated how the interpretation of this text over the course of a millennium was closely associated with the social, religious, and political events and contexts of the Jewish people. The text had its origins in the tenth century B.C.E., during the transition of semi-nomadic pastoralists toward an urban state. The Promise to David served as a common ideology giving divine sanction to the politics of a new monarchic state. Later, under changes brought about by the emergence of the Assyrian Empire in the eighth century B.C.E., the Promise to David would give rise to rather unrealistic religious rhetoric that deluded itself into thinking that God "had promised a lamp for David forever" (1 Kgs 11:36, 15:4; 2 Kgs 8:19). In the religious reforms of the seventh century B.C.E., the Promise was applied both to the king and to the Temple, which was supposed to last forever as God's dwelling place on earth. The Babylonian exile in the sixth century B.C.E. thrust the Promise into crisis. The Promise had failed; David's sons were no longer on the throne, and the Temple had been destroyed. By reinterpreting the Promise, new readers were able to relocate the God of Israel as the God of the whole earth and to apply the Promise even to foreign kings (not from the line of David). The connection between the social setting of the readers and the interpretation was especially clear in the readings given to the Promise to David by different Jewish communities in the late Second Temple period. Early Christianity, of course, read in the Promise a final fulfillment in the person of Jesus of Nazareth. The interpretation of the Promise to David began within the Bible itself, but it would continue after the Bible became Scripture - that is, after the text became sacred writ.

The question about who wrote the Bible is also misguided because it emphasizes the individuality of the author. The emphasis on individual expression is not a universal cultural value, even if it is a god of modern American culture. In some cultures, the group takes precedence over the individual.


Excerpted from How the Bible Became a Book by WILLIAM M. SCHNIEDEWIND Copyright © 2004 by William M. Schniedewind . Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Table of Contents

List of figures
1 How the Bible became a book 1
2 The numinous power of writing 24
3 Writing and the state 35
4 Writing in early Israel 48
5 Hezekiah and the beginning of biblical literature 64
6 Josiah and the text revolution 91
7 How the Torah became a text 118
8 Writing in exile 139
9 Scripture in the shadow of the temple 165
10 Epilogue 195
Suggested further reading 215
Notes 217
Index 241
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