Saturday, June 4, 2011

How Sacred Texts Took Shape in an Oral World

Writing on the Tablet of the Heart: Origins of Scripture and LiteratureIn a comprehensive analysis of the sociology of textuality in the ancient world, David M. Carr provides a panoramic view of the production, collection, revision and use of texts that produced the scriptures. The book, Writing on the Tablet of the Heart: Origins of Scripture and Literature is by no means a scintillating read. Still, Carr manages to work his way through Ancient Near Eastern forms of textuality and education (Part 1) all the way to the late Second Temple era (Part 2). His primary focus is how textuality and orality work together to shape cultural identity.

There is a burgeoning movement in biblical scholarship to analyze how texts functioned in a largely oral world. For most of its life critical biblical scholarship has been focused on texts within the framework of the modern print world. So, theories like the documentary hypothesis arise in which ancients are portrayed as splicing texts together as a kind of “cut and paste” editing. This sort of thing is only possible in a world where texts are easily accessed and compared. Recent scholarship, however, has begun to notice that these ancient texts were produced, transmitted, edited, and used in an oral world. This means that not only were a large majority of people illiterate, but even more significantly that texts functioned differently. Texts were intended to serve the means of an oral culture. Thus, practical dynamics of “cut and paste” editing are hardly plausible in an oral world.

Even the texts themselves are “highly reader-unfriendly” (4) written in all capital letters, without any spacing between letters, no punctuation, and no paragraph breaks. How do these reader-unfriendly texts become useful? The ancient texts were produced in such a way that “presupposed that the reader already knew the given text and had probably memorized it to some extent” (5). Thus, “readers” already knew the texts from memory and the textual copies were merely aides in the process of oral recitation. Rather than supposing a sharp dichotomy between the written text and the oral use of these texts, David Carr looks at the texts and the oral use of these texts as “joint means for accomplishing a common goal: accurate recall of the treasured tradition” (7). In order to show how these dynamics are at work, Carr focuses on ANE education (Part 1) then moves to the Second Temple era (Part 2).

Carr begins with Mesopotamia as one of the earliest and best evidenced examples of text production. The goal of this educational system was to give an elite representation of the truest form of humanity to serve the ends of the kingdom. In many ways scribal activity was concentrated to serve political administrative ends. Text reproduction took place in a context of memorized tradition that took creative license by combining memorized traditions into new master texts that were considered quite faithful to the originals (36, 44). One interesting result of this form of text reproduction is that the idea of a single authoritative text was never the ideal. “As a result, the modern attempt to produce a scholarly edition of those ancient texts that were transmitted primarily in the mind ends up producing a figment of the scholarly imagination: a ‘standard text’ with ‘variants’” (44). This is a lowest-common-denominator-text that lacks the creativity of its individual representations. So many modern “critical editions” are nothing more than a flattening of the text. In the broad scope, Carr finds the influence of this Mesopotamian scribal culture evidenced throughout the ANE (chapter 3).

Next, Carr moves to Egypt as another example of early scribal culture that was widely influential. It portrays writing as a means of overcoming memory faults. Rather than beginning with archaic lists (like in Mesopotamia), Egyptian education began with texts (68-9). Again, like in Mesopotamian scribal culture, the goal was a “memorized mastery of the cultural tradition” (75), but Egypt also shows a shift in associating textual reproduction with temple-complexes more significantly than political administrative centers (80-81). There are many overlapping similarities between Mesopotamian scribal culture and Egyptian scribal culture (81-83) but Egypt began to revere scribal activity as sacred activity (83) and develop a more prominent wisdom tradition (83). Egyptian scribal culture has significant influences on Israel (84-90).

Before turning his focus on ancient Israel specifically (chapter 6), Carr describes textuality and ancient education in Greece. It is a more difficult task because of the lack of evidence, but there is a notable use of texts for public performance. This use of texts is evidenced both in literature (95-99) and iconography (104-106). In contrast to Mesopotamia and Egypt, Greek scribal culture used an alphabetic writing system and different writing material (106). Greek culture resided textual authority in specific authors rather than developing lines of tradition (107). These authors were recited in public gatherings as a reminder of the ideals of Greek culture. This concept becomes significant for the formation of a body of "scripture" in late Second Temple literature.

In his lengthiest chapter in the first part of the book, Carr turns to scribal activity in ancient Israel (chapter 6). Literacy seems to be limited to a few elite officials in the early monarchy, and these scribes seem to be heavily influenced by the Egyptian scribal system, or perhaps trained Egyptian scribes (116-117). The cultural values of Israel, however, were not limited to these scribes but are evidenced in earlier figures like Moses, Samuel and other prophets (118-119). There is little that can be definitely said about literacy in the early period because of the lack of epigraphic evidence. Though textual education does play a prominent role in Deuteronomy, it is often wondered if this is a pious retrojection rather than a historical reality (134-142). This Deuteronomic scribal vision sought to displace other visions by focusing educational life on Torah. Carr also sees a developing “counter education” at work in the prophets (143-151). This “counter education” sought to oppose certain key educated players in the bureaucracy that had risen to power rather than the Deuteronomic system itself. Carr goes on to depict a history of textuality in Israel (161-173). The process moves from a very few educated elite to the goal of a more educated people, but this goal is more an ideal than reality.

In the second half of his book, Carr focuses on textuality and education in and around the Second Temple era. He begins with Greek education because of widespread expansion and use as a “means for legitimizing Greek overlordship” (177). In Greek culture the highest levels of education were reserved for those who mastered the Greek tradition of the classic authors. It was not necessarily the ability to read and write that set one apart as a member of the elite, but rather “the mastery of Greek tradition provided by a liberal education” (190). There was also the added educational element of the gymnasium as a “decisive maker of membership in the upper echelons of the Greek ruling class” (191). Again, the imperialism of athletic domination and elite status are palpable (191-192).

In chapter 8, Carr moves to the Hellenistic era of the Second Temple period (333 BCE – 70 CE). He sees a reoccurring theme of textual education focused on the temple and priests as textual guardians and educators. He begins with pseudepigraphic literature as the earliest evidence of this period (202-6) which shows a family based education/textuality focused on priestly figures. Next, he describes Ben Sira as an important transitional figure who while similar to apocalyptic texts, “writes in his own name, praises the contemporary priesthood, and affirms the Mosaic Torah as the decisive teaching above others” (208). He thus provides a shift to the kind of “hybridity” (211-12), seen in Egyptian scribal traditions reacting to Greek culture (cf. 193-198 esp. 197). The chapter ends with other examples of temple/priest education/textuality (212-214). Carr sees the hybridity evidenced in Egyptian reaction to Greek culture an apt parallel for Second Temple Jewish reactions to Hellenism.

Chapter 9 focuses on Qumran as a window into Jewish education and textuality. He sees the continued connection of education to the priesthood (216-220), but this vision is broadened into “one realization—or at least idealization—of a particularly literate Israel, an Israel whose holiness is not only constituted by proper observance of various regulations but also by its members’ special knowledge of sacred texts” (220). Turning to the explicitly educational texts in Qumran, Carr observes the same oral/written dynamic at work designed to educate to the degree of oral memorized repetition.

In a very brief tenth chapter, Carr looks at the evidence for textuality at work apart from the temple, particularly in the synagogue. After a brief overview of the epigraphic evidence (242-44) he turns to the literary references of Philo (244-46) and Josephus (246-50). Though these sources are dominated by the tendencies of their authors “writing in Greek and in conflictual settings,” the appearance of an identifiable set of literature as “scripture” is identifiable. This sets the stage for Carr’s final argument in chapter 11.

Carr attempts to show that the development of a specific body of Hebrew “scriptures” was the result of the Hasmonean dynasty. Though heavily influenced by Greek culture, the Hasmoneans styled themselves as an “anti-Hellenistic” movement (255, 256-8). In another example of hybridity, the Hasmoneans sought to adopt a specific body of texts that identified the Jewish culture (a Greek concept), but this body of texts needed to be in Hebrew and “pre-Hellenistic” in order for the Hasmoneans to play the part of restorers (258; cf. 260). Thus, the body of texts that became the focal point of Jewish identity was prompted by the Hasmonean political concern to identify themselves apart from Greek culture. But these texts  were drawn from a much earlier already recognized body Hebrew texts. Still, the Hasmonean scriptures displaced other texts that were recognized by other Jews (Ben Sira for example). So, scripture takes shape as resistance to Greek culture, but predicated on Greek assumptions of what it means to have a culture identity.

The implications of Carr’s ambitious work are far reaching to say the least. He has sought to completely rethink textual production, transmission, collection, revision and use of texts in light of recent scholarship on the significance of orality. This rethinking, furthermore, is not just focused on one particular period of scribal activity but the broad scope from the Mesopotamia to the late Hellenistic Second Temple period. It is bold, insightful and refreshing to see a scholar thinking outside of the usual assumptions of modern print culture. Likely, this book will be hailed as something of a watershed for years to come. At the very least, Carr has shown that the future of biblical scholarship will have to take note of the textual/oral dynamic at work in the world of the Bible and its “readers.”

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